I am a Japanese native, born and raised in Tokyo for more than two decades. Since 2004, I have been living in the US and working in the area of waste management. Often I hear people talk about how advanced Japan is in recycling and how behind US is. Whenever I hear that comment, I wondered if Japan really deserves that praise, because there has been much criticism against the existing recycling systems in Japan.
I recently had an opportunity to spend a few months in Japan conducting research on the current situation of e-waste recycling. This post describes what I was able to discover in Japan. What’s really going on with e-cycling there?
I was living in a residential area located in the middle of the Tokyo metropolitan area. One weekday afternoon, I heard female voice from the street soliciting junks to discard. “We take anything, from stereos and bookshelves, to automobiles and fridges, even if they are broken, for free.” The voice was actually recorded, amplified through a megaphone attached to a pickup truck driving around my neighborhood very slowly.
This truck driver is in a business generally called Fuyouhin-Kaishu, which is equivalent to junk haulers here in the United States. They either drive trucks around residential areas, or host collection events in open spaces, to gather bulky household items people want to get rid of. Typically they do this for free or for a small fee. The truck I heard that day came back to my neighborhood almost every week during my 3-month stay in Japan.
In 2001, Japan passed the Home Appliance Recycling Law that mandates collection and recycling of four types of electronics: Air conditioners, CRT-type televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines. In 2009, liquid crystal televisions, plasma televisions, and clothes dryers were added to this list. Note all the other electronics such as computers and printers are not included. Under this Law, consumers are obliged to have their used electronics collected by electronic retailers or municipalities, who then take them to manufacturers, or importers of the concerned items. The manufactures and importers are obliged to recycle items at designated recycling plants. There are 49 of them as of February 2011. Who pay for all the collection, transportation, and recycling? Consumers. They pay fees when their items are picked up. This is how the “legitimate” recycling of the aforementioned seven home appliances look like in Japan. Everybody is encouraged to participate in this system.
However, the reality is a good portion of the seven types of electronics is not managed in compliance with the Home Appliance Recycling Law. According to statistics reported by Japanese government, 6,720,000 units were collected by the Fuyohin-Kaishu people, which accounts for about 17.5 % of the total number of units discarded by households and businesses (38,480,000 units) in 2011. Of the 6.7 million units collected by Fuyouhin-Kaishu, no single item was managed or processed under the Home Appliance Recycling Law. The statistics show that 2,660,000 units were exported for reuse; 3,700,000 units were exported as scrap. See the report, in Japanese, here.
The Japanese government is increasingly concerned about the Fuyohin-Kaishu businesses because what they collect does not usually get recycled in an environmentally sound manner either domestically or abroad. Additionally, as the cheaper, back-channel option discourages consumers to use the legitimate system, it can lead to the recycling law becoming a dead letter. In order to boost the number of electronic products recycled within the national recycling system, the government recently began accelerating its effort to enforce regulations on illegitimate collection businesses and to raise awareness in communities about this issue. Moreover, there is another factor that emerged in the last few years making the Japanese government serious about advancing domestic recycling systems. (To be continued…)