What happens when a plastic bag becomes sheep’s hair?

Written by Staff Writer by Shana Lebowitz, CNN

At first glance, it doesn’t seem much different from any other plastic bag: Thick, plastic looking bag intended to hold toiletries and toilet paper. But there is a difference: The bag contains silk.

Instead of landfill trash or incinerated for energy production, the bag is meant to serve as a substitute for deer velvet used in traditional magic ceremonies to ward off evil spirits.

After being transported to Nara Prefecture, a town on Japan’s main island of Honshu, the bag becomes immersed in a technique that can lead to 10 days of removal of the “defects” — as Nara-based publication ZenBlog describes it — preventing the velvet from properly developing into hair.

Once all of the toxic liquids have been removed, the actual velvet, also called Yanmei, is released. It is then woven into yarn (though the zipper has to be removed) and is used to wick water from the air before later hanging from an overhead hook in streets.

“We want to plant the seeds that this method is beneficial to national economy, and ultimately bring about the conservation of environment.” said Mitsune Fukuma, a rice farmer, in a press release from the Japanese environmental organization Rescuing Our Hair and Tree (REHS).

Sustaining a local economy

The philosophy behind Nara Prefecture’s so-called “plastic bag alternative” has long had a little local relevance, as the choice of who has traditionally provided the ceremonial purple and black leather of the velvet effectively determines the livelihood of the town.

In 2000, Naraprefecture scrapped its traditional townships and community elders, organized around five typical Asian clans that have generations-long family tree-based vested interests in traditional cultural practices.

Read more: What happens when a plastic bag gets stuck in your fireplace?

In Nara, it is the Shoopan Clan, members of whose long-standing traditional craft construction rituals are held twice a year — once in the month of Shukan — that ties the town’s budget to the status of the local deer.

Nara Prefecture sets aside and distributes 40 billion yen in fiscal year 2017-2018 to the Shoopan. Each member clan is expected to contribute 2 billion yen ($16.5 million) per year to its overall budget of 6 trillion yen ($51 billion).

Fukuma and other organizations participating in the project see a significant increase in “paper earnings” from permits (and therefore higher taxes) for the manufacturers of Nara’s iconic woven plastic.

Native species at risk

“Unlike the Shoopan,” says Fukuma, “most of the members of all other clan groups … are now tied to [their businesses] in practice, where in the past the income derived from the making of artisanal products was shared between clan members and family.”

By siding more with businesses and the city’s economy, “it’s affecting the natural environment and the surrounding neighborhood,” says Sifiso Mami, president of Nara-based nonprofit Nara Waste Enthusiast.

Mami and others have worked to revitalize the townships, and want to do so in an ecologically sound way. As both farmers and specialists in the region, they have been lobbying the city and the local prefectural government.

But they know full well that this could prove difficult in a future of small, plant-based economies, especially if the small townships of the Shoopan Clan – long considered traditional centers of creativity and thought – were to disappear.

“The Shoopan have been traditionally good at dealing with foreign ideas and technology,” says Mami. “Of course we don’t want to see them go the way of small fishing communities that are now struggling to survive.”

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