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Recycling to Work 
by Catherine Pawasarat 


Might the small island nation of Japan disappear beneath a tsunami  of its own garbage? With more than 5,000 tons of waste transported daily to the garbage-disposal site in Tokyo alone, the Japanese are finally taking the issue of waste reduction seriously. Of all the domestic waste generated in Japan in 1999, packaging comprised about 60 percent in terms of volume, according to the Japan Economic Foundation. 

Clearly, the excessive paper and plastic packaging for which Japan is renowned needs to become a thing of the past - very soon. Towards this end, the Japanese government implemented in April 2000 its Packaging Recycling Law. Under this statute, manufacturers are obliged to pay for collection, sorting, transportation and recycling costs related to their products' paper and plastic containers and packaging. Even before the law came into effect, the response from the business sector was positive and immediate. Within the last few years, packaging has become considerably more lightweight, compact and durable. Packaging materials are easier to separate, wash, reuse and recycle, or they can be incinerated with drastically reduced toxicity. 

"We use recycled aluminum, glass and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles as raw materials for our packaging, which we've made easier to separate and recycle," comments Hiromi Anno, head of corporate communications for Shiseido, Japan's largest domestic cosmetic vendor. Instead of buying another bottle of shampoo, Shiseido customers can now top up their existing bottles with refills, and these save on resources and costs. As of June 2000, consumers can bring Shiseido bottles back to the point of purchase for recycling. 

"Collecting these bottles for recycling is initially expensive," admits Anno, "but over time it becomes cheaper." Collection costs notwithstanding, reduced packaging can contribute to a healthy corporate bottom line. In fiscal 1999, the Shiseido group's greatest savings were in raw-material costs, which were reduced by 153 million. Meanwhile, profits from recycled-waste products and decreased waste-processing charges totaled 34 million. Seven-Eleven Japan has expanded the recyclable-packaging concept to a human level, with recyclable uniforms for employees at its 8,440 shops nationwide. By recycling the polyester material, buttons and fasteners, the Japan's largest convenience store chain aims to save the equivalent of about 120,000 liters of petroleum annually. 

"We've changed the whole production process of our uniforms: they're ecological and will be about 30 percent cheaper to produce," explains Miyaji Nobuyuki of the company's public-relations department. However, recycling anywhere in the world requires coordinated action by corporations, consumers and government bodies. Recycling is only legally required under the Package Recycling Law when garbage is already being sorted according to type, points out Isei Morita, of the Emerging Industries Research Department at the Daiwa Institute of Research. Local governments determine whether or not this occurs. 

"Only about 10 percent of the country appropriately separates out their garbage and recycles," Morita notes, adding that different cities have different degrees of commitment. Nagoya residents separate their garbage into more than 20 different types, while Osaka is just beginning to separate its garbage into a few different categories. "If people don't separate their garbage, they can't recycle," Morita adds. A significant number of companies recognize that the inevitability of recycling presents a whole new frontier for business opportunities. 

"All of our packaging is made from bamboo and kenaf paper. These quick-growing plants are good alternatives to forest-derived wood pulp, and paper can be recycled more easily than plastic," says Hirokazu Shimizu, president of Shimizu Printing & Packaging, which makes packaging for CD ROMs. Shimizu also has patents on several of its own soybean-based printing inks. Unlike standard inks, these are non-toxic. "Regular ink may be harmful to people, as it evaporates over time and releases endocrine disruptors, perhaps contribute to certain illnesses," Shimizu states. 


With so much plastic packaging still being used in Japan, it is important that headway be made in recycling this material as well. NKK Corporation, Japan's second largest steel-maker, sees recycling plastic as a lucrative alternative to today's unstable steel market. In 1996, the company constructed its first used-plastic-processing plant outside Tokyo, burning plastic at 2,400C so as to produce no dioxins, a particularly dangerous type of endocrine disruptor. Recently ( IN 4/00), NKK invested 4 billion (40 OKU YEN) to build another used-plastic-processing plant (TO MAKE GENRYOU) to take advantage of increased opportunities resulting from the Packaging Recycling Law. By 2010, the company anticipates processing some 300,000 tons of used plastic, thereby bringing in an estimated 10 billion. 

By becoming more ecological, Japanese corporations are finding new ways to keep themselves way in the black. And help Japan go green.

 

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