FUKUI–Drinking straws that are touted as being true to the original meaning of the word are becoming popular here amid the eco-friendly trend for using less plastic.
“These ones are so shiny and beautiful, huh?” said Hiromi Shigehisa, head of Omugi Club, a company based in the capital of Fukui Prefecture, as she showed a bunch of drinking straws in a light cream color. “They are wholly natural.”
The straws were made in a barley-producing district here from stems of the plant. The district turns all golden during harvesting season.
The English loan word “straw” is used in Japanese to refer to the hollow tube that is used to suck a drink through.
Omugi Club labels its straw products as a throwback to the primary sense of the term: a dried stem of barley or other grain plants. “Omugi” is Japanese for barley.
The company manufactures and markets flour, malt and other products processed from six-rowed barley.
Omugi Club produced about 300,000 barley drinking straws last year. They are available for purchase in minimum units of 10, which are priced at 330 yen ($2.43) per set, including tax.
“Everything started when I had this desire to deliver the views and the refreshing winds of barley fields to our customers in some way or other,” said Shigehisa, 57.
MAKING STRAWS FUN FOR KIDS
Shigehisa had learned from her late father-in-law, who was a part-time farmer, that barley stalks can be made into drinking straws.
When she was a child care worker about 20 years ago, she would bring children from her nursery school to the barley field of her household, where she taught the children to make drinking straws as a fun project.
Shigehisa set up her business in 2010 with her husband, Noritsugu, who is 59. When she served cold barley tea to customers of her business, she would also serve homemade barley drinking straws to go along with it.
The straws were received so favorably that some customers asked Shigehisa to put them on sale. She withheld, however, from marketing them, partly because of the hygiene control measures that would be required, and partly also because of the effort it would take to manufacture them.
But a push came from the trend of the times.
The public’s attention focused on environmental pollution produced by plastic litter. A video clip showing a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nostril went viral.
Moves began to spread in the food service and other industries for using less plastic.
Shigehisa commercialized her barley drinking straws in 2019, partly because she was receiving a growing number of inquiries for them.
The barley stalks, from which the straws are made, are being procured from an agricultural producers’ cooperative corporation in the local community. The stems would otherwise be dumped on the field.
A combine for harvesting grains would break up the stalks into small pieces, so Omugi Club workers use a hand-pushed farm tool instead to harvest barley on their own on a farm plot that is designated in advance for the company’s drinking straws.
After drying the barley plants, which stand about 1.2 meters tall, the workers remove their ears, roots and nodes and use scissors to cut them into sections measuring about 20 centimeters long. Only one or two drinking straws can be made from a single stem.
The straws are sterilized by boiling and are dried before they are packed.
PERFECT PRODUCT FOR ECO-FRIENDLY TIMES
Omugi Club’s drinking straws are being used at restaurants to go with drinks that they serve. They are also on show as products for sale at variety shops and at roadside rest areas in Fukui Prefecture.
The straws have also been adopted as one of the optional gifts that taxpayers can receive in exchange for making donations to the city of Fukui under the central government’s “furusato nozei” (hometown tax) program.
The law for promoting the recycling of plastic resources took effect in April. It calls on businesses that offer disposable plastic products, such as tableware, to reduce the use of similar products.
Shigehisa said that, with that development, a growing number of orders are now coming from establishments other than restaurants, including accommodations.
To spread the use of low environmental impact products, Omugi Club worked last year with businesses and other groups from across Japan to set up a “Fuzoroi Straw Project,” where “fuzoroi” is Japanese for being of all shapes and sizes.
Members of the project are exchanging information on the knack of manufacturing barley drinking straws and on machinery for improving the work efficiency as they each produce straws in the Kanto region and in Kyushu.
“I don’t think that plastics are an absolute evil,” Shigehisa said. “If alternatives are available, we can just use more of them.”
She has also been giving classes on demand for audiences, mainly of families with children, where she invites the participants to make barley drinking straws while thinking about the environment and resources.
“Our straws are back at their origins,” she said. “I want people to know that what is being thrown away can be useful.”
According to a 2020 trade ministry document, there are an estimated 13 billion to 17.3 billion plastic drinking straws circulating in Japan.
There are moves, in the meantime, for replacing them with non-plastic products. Major coffeehouse chain Starbucks Coffee Japan Ltd., for example, has switched to offering only drinking straws made of paper at all its outlets in the country.