Recycle-minded: Mutsumi and Tetsuya Kubo are two of the five founders of Material Market, a recycled materials store in Nishinoura, Fukuoka Prefecture. | COURTESY OF MATERIAL MARKET

Nishinoura, Fukuoka Pref. – Tucked away in a side street of the quiet town of Nishinoura, just over an hour from central Fukuoka by train and bus, sits an unusual little store. The glass facade, concrete flooring, whitewashed walls and wooden shelving of Material Market give it the air of a minimalist design shop. Peek inside, though, and the wooden, ceramic, paper and other items on offer are not what they seem.

Vase-like cones turn out to be cardboard thread spools, the kind used for industrial sewing machines; white saucers are actually discarded porcelain kiln cookies; and displays of wooden objects are randomly shaped offcuts from furniture and accessory manufacturers. Every item is a waste or byproduct, carefully selected and displayed to showcase its potential as a creative material.

“My father used to make products using haizai (scrap materials), but it became too difficult for him to maintain that business,” says Mutsumi Kubo, a graphic designer who, with her husband, Tetsuya, is among the five founding members of Material Market.

“Sourcing waste means that the quality of material can’t be consistent. Also, natural disasters in Japan often affect businesses and their output,” Mutsumi says. “That’s one reason why we thought that selling the actual offcuts and byproducts as materials to inspire individuals would be a better way to encourage recycling waste.”

Conical: Used cardboard itomaki (thread spool) cones at Material Market are displayed as dried flower vases. | COURTESY OF MATERIAL MARKET

Using scrap to make products, says Mutsumi, is also not as cost-effective as it sounds. It takes expert craftsmanship to manipulate waste — to navigate its flaws and unusual shapes — into high-quality consumer items. “Designs have to be adjusted specifically to utilize the properties of the material, too,” says Tetsuya, himself a product designer. “So the skill, time and equipment it involves works out to be a really expensive process.”

There are various Japanese initiatives, small and large, that have been successful in recycling materials into products — from Newsed’s accessory lineup of repurposed factory offcuts and overstock to Uniqlo’s use of recycled plastic bottles in fabric. Material Market, however, is one of the few ventures in Japan that gives the general public access to these raw waste materials.

Waste not, want not: Inside Material Market, every item for sale is a waste or byproduct from craftspeople’s workshops or small factories in Japan. | COURTESY OF MATERIAL MARKET

“When we founded Material Market, we sought advice from Nakadai Co. in Gunma Prefecture, which specializes in industrial waste disposal and was one of the first initiatives to recognize the value of haizai,” Mutsumi says. “It gave us some tips on how to market haizai as a sozai (usable material).”

Nakadai’s collected waste, of which it recycles 99%, is largely sourced from major industries and includes electronic parts, plastics and metal components. It also runs Mono: Factory, an initiative that advises businesses on using recycled materials, and offers creative workshops for visitors.

As a non-specialist of industrial waste, however, Mutsumi explains that Material Market deals with artisans and smaller manufacturers, offering many hand-crafted items, such as flawed tubes of Hakata Magemono bentwood and chōchin (paper lantern) overstock.

“Our team members are in creative industries and include product designers, graphic designers and an architect. We all work closely with makers who focus on monozukuri (detailed craftsmanship), so we were familiar with the quantity and kind of waste produced in studios and small factories.”

Part of Material Market’s appeal is its styled presentation of personally curated finds. Handfuls of small items are neatly packaged in transparent resealable bags, while larger ones are laid out like ornaments, minimally labeled with thin strips of printed paper. Most of the objects are sourced in Kyushu, with many from nearby makers.

“We have a Local Haizai series,” Mutsumi says, pointing out bags labeled with town names. “The Okawa and Morodomi offcuts are from furniture factories, while the Itoshima pronged blocks are the leftover sections from making wooden forks.”

Wooden whorls: Some of the Shibata Toku Shoten Hakata Magemono bentwood pieces available at Material Market had been kept in storage for more than 40 years. | COURTESY OF MATERIAL MARKET

Many items are also labeled with a little information of their provenance, and the Kubos know every object’s background. “The Hakata Magemono pieces are over 40 years old and were made by Shibata Toku Shoten, one of just two studios in Japan still practicing the craft,” says Mutsumi, offering an example. “The person who likely made them, though, sadly passed away about two years ago.”

A collection of heavily weathered fishing net weights, she adds, were sourced from local fishermen, whom she approached after seeing the giant ceramic beads discarded on a nearby beach.

“Thanks to local media attention, quite a lot of people on day trips to this area now include a visit to our store to see these items,” Tetsuya says. “We also run a small antennae stall in Tenjin, central Fukuoka, which helps introduce people in the city to our Nishinoura location.”

Bulk beads: Ceramic yaki iwa fishing net weights, displayed at Material Market, are often thrown away after being replaced by steel alternatives. | COURTESY OF MATERIAL MARKET

Material Market has aspirations to go nationwide, with its founders hoping to help make recycling scrap an everyday activity of society. “Each prefecture has different industries, so you can imagine the variety of other interesting materials available,” Mutsumi says. “We would like to see those potential materials distributed and used all over Japan.”

Until then, the initiative is more locally focused. “Many of our customers are nearby business owners,” Tetsuya says. “They come in looking for items to creatively decorate their establishments.”

Half the store is also a dedicated open space in which, before COVID-19 precautions, visitors could join group workshops to make creations using Material Market’s items and tools.

“We can’t run full workshops right now,” Mutsumi says, commenting on the pandemic’s effect on the store’s scheduled activities. “But we do still allow kids to stop by on their way home from school.”

True to Material Market’s modus operandi, she adds, “We let them use the leftovers and scraps from our left over and scrap products for free.”

By Mio Yamada, The Japan Times

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