LIKE many Japanese companies, NEC Corporation, the largest maker of personal computers in Japan with 53 percent of the market, is contemplating a venture into "eco-tech."
NEC officials wonder if they can, or just should, eventually recycle the 5 million personal computers (PCs) the company has already sold. Most of the units contain nonbiodegradable plastic, toxic metals such as cadmium, and dangerous battery chemicals such as lithium.
"We anticipate most of the PCs will start to be thrown away in another four to five years," says Keizo Fujimori, vice president of NEC Environment Engineering Company.
But NEC is trapped between doing good and doing well. Despite a reputation as a leader for environmental measures, NEC officials doubt if any profit can be made in recycling all those PCs.
"At present, it's only worthwhile recycling mainframe computers and supercomputers," says Mr. Fujimori, who is the author of a new book, "Corporate Strategies for Protecting the Environment."
"But even if recycling doesn't pay, we must do it as a contribution," Fujimori tells his bosses, who have yet to decide.
NEC's story reflects the dilemmas of many Japanese manufacturing firms that have joined a government-led campaign to open a new market in pollution-fighting equipment, in hopes that technology can solve the world's environmental problems.
In 1990, Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry issued a "New Earth 21" program to clean up the planet, a virtual directive to companies to enter the anticipated world market in eco-tech.
Central to the plan is a proposed Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth that will open in Kyoto next year. RITE will bring together both Japanese and foreign companies to research such projects as creating microorganisms that eat carbon dioxide.
Many businesses have set up environmental divisions, but much of the effort is directed at employees to convince them that the company is being trendy. "Many companies just use the word `environment' as a way to make money," Fujimori says.
Some companies, however, have started to recycle their paper waste. To aid in future recycling, many electronic manufacturing firms are marking plastic parts in products with the chemical content and designing equipment for easy disassembly.
This is not the first go-around on the environment for Japanese companies. Severe pollution in the 1960s led to the government ordering manufacturing firms to clean up their waste water and smokestack emissions. Auto firms also designed more fuel-efficient and cleaner engines.
MANY of those technologies have become saleable abroad. The government is especially eager for Japanese companies to equip Chinese coal-fired plants with smokestack scrubbers. Sulfur from the plants sends acid rain down on Japan.
"Japan is offering environmental technology, but there are not many sales yet," says Hideo Obara, director of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan.
Some businesses need no government prodding. Sanyo Electric Company is working on a 21st-century plan to put solar cells across Asian deserts to generate electricity. Mazda Corporation came out this year with an experimental car powered by hydrogen gas. And many Japanese automobile companies are getting ready to build electric cars.
A long-term project by Japan to tackle global warming is to liquefy excess carbon dioxide in the air and pump it down pipes to the deepest ocean floor, where water pressure may keep it stabilized for eons.