Suno Nishiyama, founder and chief executive officer of Komham Inc., speaks during an interview on April 6, 2023 in Tokyo. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) — A Japanese startup has developed a new method of decomposing organic waste using microorganisms, enabling ordinary citizens to contribute to environmental protection and help mitigate global warming.

Komham Inc., a company based in Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido, gets its name from the waste-decomposing bacteria it produces.

The technology drastically reduces organic refuse, including livestock manure and sewage sludge, cutting greenhouse gas emissions produced by the transportation and incineration of waste necessary in conventional disposal methods.

This photo shows food waste mixed with wood chips containing bacteria. (Photo courtesy of Komham Inc.) (Kyodo)

“I want environmental protection to be a part of everyday life, not just something that big companies and entities with lots of money and time do,” said Suno Nishiyama, 35, founder of Komham.

“I know reducing waste is necessary for environmental protection, but it can be difficult, especially if it means changing one’s lifestyle,” she says, admitting that she sometimes feels guilty too if she orders takeout and has to throw the leftovers in the garbage during a busy working week.

“I hope to create better infrastructure for waste disposal so that everyone, without being aware of it, is doing something good for the environment,” she said in a recent interview with Kyodo News in Tokyo, where the company’s branch office is located.

This photo shows compost with wood chips containing bacteria. (Photo courtesy of Komham Inc.) (Kyodo)

The company supplies bacteria that can process 98 percent of organic waste into water and carbon dioxide in just 24 hours, eliminating the need to turn it into compost, which is often not put to use. Fresh bacteria are added every three months for quality control.

According to Nishiyama, Komham means dry leaves in the Ainu language. The Ainu are an indigenous ethnic group from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island.

Although the company was founded in January 2020 and specializes in biomass technology, Nishiyama, who spent several years in the public relations industry, has no background in scientific research or managing a company.

But because of her strong desire “to do something that makes a lasting impact on society,” she decided to start the venture by purchasing the komham bacteria technology, previously owned by her father in Hokkaido.

Just as she got her startup venture up and running, however, the coronavirus pandemic hit. At first, she tried raising capital through bank loans but struggled, as the financing method tends to favor well-established companies.

Eventually, she managed to secure an investment of 50 million yen ($371,000) from a fund established by Ritsumeikan University, her alma mater, and opened an experimental laboratory in Sapporo to develop and produce the bacteria culture.

She said the Sapporo municipal government has also given them financial support, helping them with their opening and assisting with labor costs.

Although people often think the business environment in Tokyo may be for starting a company, “Sapporo city has recently been very active in promoting local ventures, so they were surprisingly supportive. If I had tried to get everything up and running in Tokyo, it may not have gone as smoothly as it did,” Nishiyama said.

Komham has partnered with several different entities that have utilized its waste disposal technology, including Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, Ritsumeikan University, and local governments in Sapporo, Kawasaki and Yokohama.

The venture plans to sell stand-alone “smartcompost” boxes containing the bacteria next year. The boxes will be powered by solar energy and will not require water treatment. Waste deposited in the boxes will decompose in a day meaning that, unlike regular compost, they will not produce any unpleasant odors, she said.

The smartcompost system measures the amount of food waste disposed of and provides residual battery information, allowing the owner to monitor the waste decomposition process.

“Although tech startups are usually run by engineers, I believe the fact that I don’t have a research background is actually an advantage, as I tend to avoid using jargon or technical terms when discussing the product,” she said.

Nishiyama intends to expand the distribution of its compost boxes and make them as ubiquitous as “post boxes or vending machines” are in Japan by having them placed around cities, as well as in campsites, schools, and even high-rise condominiums.

She also envisages using them to collect data on waste disposal and usage frequency, which varies depending on location and context, such as if there is a festival in a local area or if one is being used in a university cafeteria.

“I hope that by setting up smart composts in various locations, it will generate more discussion about waste disposal,” she said, adding that the data collected could be used as a marketing tool for companies seeking to reduce food waste or sell environmentally friendly products.

Nishiyama believes that expanding overseas could also be an option in the future, particularly in countries like India and Vietnam, where food waste is increasing due to rapid population growth while waste disposal standards are yet to be established.

“I think there is an opportunity to make a foray into foreign countries after trying it out in Japan,” she said.

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