Rare Earth Metal Driving Japan’s e-Cycling Politics

yuka-headshot-2My previous post REPORT: E-CYCLING IN JAPAN (PART 1) reported that the national recycling law, while making measurable progress in advancing responsible recycling of electronics in Japan, are in the midst of a battle against illegitimate recycling businesses. In the past few years, Japanese government began increasing its effort to win this battle.  As I wrote at the end of the post, there are a few reasons why the Japanese government recently became serious about solving this problem.  The first, obvious, reason is, it is their job to enforce the existing national law and keep it from being undermined by those who circumvent the legal system. Secondly, and most importantly, the government was urged by China’s recent restrictions and halts of rare earth exports which are a crucial raw material for Japan’s electronics sectors.

China produces 97 percent of the global supply of the rare earth metals. Japan and the rest of the world depends almost entirely on China for sourcing rare earths, which are vital for making a range of high-tech products such as hybrid cars and cell phones. Over the past decade, China has been cutting export quotas of rare earth metals to regional ‘strategic competitors’ such as Japan by an average of 6% each year.

In 2010 China took this tactic to the extreme, slashing exports of all rare metals by 72% . Moreover, the historical diplomatic tension between China and Japan came into play. In September 2010, China allegedly temporarily stopped shipments of all rare earths bound for Japan, protesting against Japan’s navy arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain near disputed East China Sea islands.

In response, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) “released a set of ‘comprehensive rare earth measures’ to ensure a stable supply for Japanese industry. It outlined five main areas of focus, one of which is to turn “Japan into a major global center for rare earth recycling” (Bloomberg Businessweek, October 4, 2011).

In order to build a “rare earth recycling nation,” METI and Ministry of Environment (MoE) are now developing a new recycling bill that promotes collection and recycling of “compact electronics,” which contain precious and rare earth metals.  The scope of the electronics considered covered under this law is broad. It includes as many as 96 electronics, from electric razor, cell phone, and digital camera, to rice cooker, printer, and electric stove.  This idea of recovering precious and rare earth metals from discarded electronic products to reuse in new electronic products is often called urban mining.  Since electronic products are ubiquitous in Japan, the government is estimating urban mining could bring 1.86 billion yen in profit. The bill was endorsed by the Cabinet last Friday and will be submitted to the Diet this spring.


A man in solitude dismantles computers at a recycler in Tokyo. Discarded parts will be shipped to a smelter in Japan. (Copyright: Yoshinori Tsuji)

Under the new urban mining law, MoE also intends to tighten control over exports of compact electronics. It will require an exporter to document how used electronics meant for export will be recycled in the recipient county, and provide MoE with the detail of the units and the plan for recycling.  These extra steps are supposed to discourage illegal exporters of electronics.

What is worth mentioning is that, the government is going to use rare earth metal recycling as a way to vitalize the Tohoku region, affected by the 3.11 Earthquake. In October 2011, the Daily Yomiuri reported that MoE requested a budget of two hundred million yen to run a project which will make the Tohoku region a hub for recycling of compact electronics collected from around the country. As mining has been historically one of the area’s biggest industries, the mining companies there possess and more adept at developing technology to recycle rare earth metals. The plan is to have compact electronics collected from residents by local municipalities, ship the equipment to the Tohoku region, where processors will dismantle the equipment for smelters to extract rare earths from the disposed materials. Because the dismantling is done manually it is also a job creator in this region of Japan which is in great need of revitalization.

The government has much work to do to shape the system in a way that will actually work. While in Japan, I talked with several high-tech manufactures, environmental professionals, and consumer groups, who will be affected by the new law. They all shared several concerns. The technology of rare earth recycling is not fully developed or widely available enough yet to handle a large volume. Also, currently, there seem to be a variety of recycling laws for different types of electronics.  This is confusing to the general public and could discourage the public to dispose of their electronics properly.  Last but not least, the law will fail unless the siphoning of used electronics to illegal/illegitimate processors is not halted or brought into the new legal system.

Despite the anticipated challenges the new law faces, my thinking on this is that the confluence of the resource crisis and the environmental sense worked as a perfect formula for getting Japan to seriously take on the task of advancing domestic e-cycling and combating illegal e-waste exports.  I will keep an eye on the development and implementation of the compact recycling law throughout 2012.

See also: Tohuko to Become a Center for Rare Metal Recycling, from The Tokyo Times. (Cover photo)