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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After 2005, says Yasuhiko Hotta, a waste management expert at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Kanagawa, Japan, the government shifted its focus to international efforts. It's taking steps to prevent illegal trade in recyclables, including e-waste, and to develop the capacity for proper treatment of recyclables and waste in developing countries.Skip to next paragraph
Japan's own aggressive efforts on what it has labeled the 3Rs – reuse, recycle, and reduce – have opened up numerous opportunities to support similar strategies in Thailand, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia. They target improved recycling locally, although more effort is under way to bring waste back to Japan that demands highly refined processes.
Similarly, Dowa, which is considered one of the leading global industrial recycling firms, has a pilot project for e-waste collection and materials recovery in developing countries in Asia. The company, which recaptures about 440 lbs. (200 kilograms) of gold each month, can extract 18 metals from the 800 varieties of high- and low-tech waste that roll into this plant each month. Much of it's the detritus of everyday life – cellphones, watches, circuit boards, even pens.
On the company campus, where low, barracks-style buildings feed off a small central road, waste is sorted according to what can be broken down on site and what must be shipped to a village-size Dowa facility in northern Japan. Once processed, extracted materials can be sent back to manufacturers to create newer watches and more cutting-edge tools.
As he watches a worker take molten recovered gold and press it into a brick worth some 7 million yen, or about $76,000, Mr. Maeda says that the amount of gold and silver he sees has skyrocketed. And that's a good thing.
"Mines dig deep holes, and that produces waste," he says. A ton of earth, for example, typically yields five grams of gold. A ton of cellphones, meanwhile, contains 400 grams of gold, along with 500 grams of silver and 4 grams of palladium, according to Dowa.
Starting next year, the Japanese government will require telecommunications carriers to recycle all cellphones. "We used to think our resources were limitless 40 years ago, but now we can feel the limitation, so we recycle everything," says Maeda.
Many of the efforts to go green in Japan are more the work of individuals. Consider the mayor of Kamikatsu.
Kazuichi Kasamatsu grew up in the small town, watching its population drop by two-thirds and its economic prospects dwindle. Rice paddies were replaced with cedar farms – only to have the lumber business leave in search of cheaper labor. "There was always a sense that we might not make it," he says. "We struggled to figure out our future."
Passage of a waste-management law in 1997 forced the shutdown of the town's incinerator – and gave rise to a new sense of direction that drew inspiration from near (other rural areas in Japan) and far (the rapidly growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China).