FEATURE - Japan tests its mettle with recycling plan
TOKYO - Japan has never had a problem churning out new televisions or refrigerators that are a must-have for consumers.
Deciding what to do with the old ones is a different story.
Rusting refrigerators, discarded televisions and unwanted washing machines sprout among the grasses of scenic riverbanks throughout the country.
But new legislation that takes effect next month aims to change that by requiring electronics makers to recycle old appliances, rather than crushing or burying them as waste.
So far, electronics firms have been giving the impression they will follow the new rules, absorbing some of the additional costs that recycling will require as a trade-off for improving their efficiency in using recycled materials and portraying themselves as socially responsible businesses.
But the jury is still out on whether consumers, battered by a decade of economic stagnation, will pay additional costs, too.
"Its difficult to predict how many used goods will be collected for recycling beginning in April," said Junji Kanegawa, a spokesman at Matsushita Electric Industrial Co Ltd, the worlds largest consumer electronics manufacturer.
"Its a question of individual standards and also how strictly the new law will be enforced."
Tomoki Katagiri, deputy head of Mitsubishi Materials Corps Global Ecoindustry Centre, said it would likely take about three years for the public to accept the additional costs for protecting the environment.
NOT EASY BEING GREEN
Under the new law, manufacturers must recycle four types of appliances - washing machines, televisions, refrigerators and air conditioners - accounting for around 80 percent of all appliances produced in Japan.
Used appliances are now collected by electronics shops or local governments, after which most of them are crushed and buried as waste or exported as used products or parts.
But years of using this system has left little land available for appliance burial in densely populated Japan and the government estimates even that will be used up in seven to eight years.
While no official data exist, an estimated 20 million used home appliances must be disposed of annually in Japan, industry sources said. In the past, 20 to 40 percent of them were believed to have been illegally dumped or exported.
After the new law takes effect, Matsushita and other Japanese consumer electronics goods manufacturers plan to charge consumers 2,400 yen ($20) to dispose of unwanted washing machines, 2,700 yen for televisions, 3,500 yen for air conditioners and 4,600 yen for refrigerators.
Manufacturers have built new recycling plants and teamed up with recyclers to smooth the procedure.
But consumers will also have to pay the cost of transporting the appliances from the manufacturers shops to recycling plants. This could be hard to swallow at a time when they are keeping a tight hold on their purse strings due to the sluggish economy.
RULES LACK TEETH
The success of the regulations may hinge on how strictly they are enforced and the economic benefits firms can gain through recycling.
Many consumers are likely to illegally dump unwanted appliances if they view the new disposal costs as too expensive, and shops might send appliances to scrap makers instead of recycling plants to cut costs and avoid charging their customers, a metal industry source said.
Unfortunately for supporters of the new law, local government regulation of illegal appliance dumping is seen as generally loose and penalties may not be much of a deterrent. Under the new law, consumer electric goods makers and retailers can be slapped with a maximum fine of 500,000 yen, or about $4,200.
Punishments for individuals, allowing for up to five years imprisonment or a 10-million yen fine, will remain unchanged.
A WEALTH OF OPPORTUNITY
Proponents of the plans say the new laws, if properly implemented, are business-friendly as well as green.
A Japan Mining Industry Association official said that if all used home appliances, cars and office automation equipment were recycled, about 14 percent, or 200,000 tonnes, of Japans copper output could be recovered each year.
Japan is to introduce recycling rules covering automobiles and office automation equipment in the next few years.
Mitsubishi Materials Katagiri said if the new system became well-established, imports of copper concentrates would fall in line with the amount of copper recovered through recycling, a phenomenon seen in the lead industry in Japan.
"In lead, Japan has a well-established recycling system in which stores buy back used lead batteries, give them to refiners who reclaim lead in the batteries and then sell it back to battery producers," he said. "The recycling system has helped reduce Japanese imports of lead concentrates."
Matsushitas spokesman said it would be able to gradually reduce its costs through the improvement of recycling technology and by handling bigger volumes.
But in the end, with lingering uncertainty about enforcement and the attitude of manufacturers may only count for so much.
"Unless consumers accept the fees, it will be hard to establish the recycling system," the Matsushita spokesman said.
Story by Fumiko Fujisaki
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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