Japan as ground zero for no-waste lifestyle
Three environmental models: Toyota's Prius factory, an electronics recycler, and a village that recycles 80 percent of its trash.
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Large trees – 50,000 were planted in May – dot the visitor parking lot to offer a soothing greeting, says the plant's "sustainable initiative" manager. Insulating vines wend their way up the outside of an employee locker building. Some 22,000 square meters of ex-terior walls are coated with photocatalytic paint that, Toyota says, mirrors the ability of 2,000 poplars to absorb nitrous oxide and process oxygen.Skip to next paragraph
The roof of the visitor center is a mat of grass, designed to reduce waves of heat by 3 degrees C. Solar lights dot the streets and 800-kilowatt solar panels blanket the tops of buildings. Even the red roadside flowers were genetically engineered to absorb noxious emissions and help evaporate water.
Behind Tsutsumi's face lift lies one of the globe's most visible bids to lighten the automobile's carbon footprint: the Prius. Hundreds roll off gleaming Line No. 2 here every day.
With the hybrid vehicle an Earth-friendly icon from Tokyo to Hollywood, Toyota decided it was important to have its backstory match up.
"Cars are a burden to the environment, but the hybrid helps," says Osamu Terada, leader of the sustainable plant initiative. "The plant is also important – we don't want manufacturing to cause a further burden."
Like the Prius, the Tsutsumi factory now relies on hybrid power, drawing 50 percent of its electricity from solar panels and 50 percent from capturing waste heat generated within the plant. The facility has reduced its carbon-dioxide emissions to half what they were in 1990, despite an increase in production. It eliminated production of landfill waste in 1999 and dispensed with incinerated waste in March.
"Toyota is certainly a visible leader in this regard," says Mr. Esty. "And other auto companies [such as Honda and BMW] are starting to pay attention to environmental concerns in both the cars they produce and their manufacturing process and supply chain as well. Even some American car companies are starting to wake up to these issues."
It's an approach that has long characterized Japanese business. "Japanese companies have been coming from a real hatred of waste," says John Elkington, founder of SustainAbility, a global corporate consultancy. "And that has gone deeply into their manufacturing philosophy."
At Dowa Eco-System Recycling Co., in Honjo, Japan, Yoshihiko Maeda thrusts his hand into an enormous, waist-high plastic bag and rifles through hundreds of used cellphones. To him, it's opportunity time.
Usually one phone, which weighs 100-130 grams (.22 to .3 lbs.), gives .04 grams of gold, according to Dowa officials. It's a small amount, but it's valuable to manufacturers in growing competition for resources and to recyclers, who can extract and refine it to the same purity as mined gold.
Recovering the contents of everything from air conditioners to circuit boards has taken on increasing global urgency as manufacturing has moved from developed to developing countries, which often lack proper recycling facilities. But extracting the materials is highly lucrative, meaning that businesses vie to snap up the waste. Because it often is hard to automate, unsafe practices can expose workers – including children in some parts of the world – to dangerous materials.