Japan streets ahead in global plastic recycling race

This is from  guardian Article 29/12/11 – thanks to Andy for forwarding it.
At 77%, country’s plastic recycling rate is about twice that of the UK, and well above the 20% figure for the US

Japan is one of the most successful countries in the world for recycling plastics. In 2010, 77% of plastic waste was recycled, up from 73% in 2006 and 39% in 1996, according to the Plastic
Waste Management Institute.

The country has passed several recycling laws to address the disposal and treatment of plastic waste since 1997, when businesses and consumers were obliged to separate plastic waste for the first time. That measure, along with better awareness off the benefits of separating out plastic is what has had the impact.

The list of plastic items that can be recycled has grown to include boxes and cases, wrappings, cups and containers, plates and trays, tube-shaped containers, lids and caps. Most is processed together, with plastic bottles and other containers treated separately.

In 2006, according to the institute, Japan recycled 2.1m tonnes of plastic waste, while 4.8m tonnes undergoes so-called “thermal recycling” which includes conversion into useful chemicals and burning to generate energy.

The number and type of plastic waste separation differs among municipalities, but most households are required to separate plastic wrappers and packages from polyethylene terephthalate [PET] bottles, whose labels must be torn off before they are thrown away.

The law was tightened amid a rise in the amount of waste generated by Japan’s 127 million people, and a shortage of landfill space.

Household items such as food wrappers and PET bottle labels are clearly marked to indicate they need to be treated as plastic waste. The items are usually collected for free, on different days from regular kitchen waste.

At 77%, Japan’s plastic recycling rate is about twice that of the UK, and well above the 20% figure for the US, which still depends largely on landfill, according to institute spokesman Takushi Kamiya. One major driver has been the lack of space for landfill on the crowded islands.

“Japan has been able to make progress in plastic recycling because waste-processing agencies have won the support of manufacturers,” he said. Japan recycled 72% of PET bottles in 2010, compared with 48% in Europe and 29% in the US.

The recycled material is used in textiles, sheeting, industrial materials and household items such as egg boxes. Large quantities are shipped to China, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, where it is used to make toys and games.

New technology is helping raise the PET-bottle recycling rate. The food company Ajinomoto recently unveiled a plastic bottle made entirely of recycled PET. The firm expects to use 4,500 tonnes of recycled PET in its drink bottles every year.

Japan’s plastic recycling operation would be easier if manufacturers reduced the amount of wrapping they use, said Kevin Carroll, representative director of EA International, an environmental and engineering risk management consultancy in Tokyo.

“Japan differs from other countries in that it tends to overwrap,” Carroll said. “You buy a bento boxed lunch and it comes in a plastic box with a lid, and then it’s put into a plastic bag. Lots of other foodstuffs are the same.

“There’s a tremendous amount of plastic around. The real problem is with household plastic, a lot of which gets burned or buried. The amounts involved are phenomenal.”

Kamiya agrees that Japan needs to address the 27% of plastic waste that is simply incinerated or buried in increasingly scarce landfill sites.

“We are looking at ways to deal with what’s left over, but it’s difficult to imagine at this stage that we’ll get the recycling rate to 100%,” he said. “But I think we do very well compared with other countries.”


  • The overuse and waste of valuable natural resources is threat

EU warns wasting environmental resources could spark new recession

Janez Potočnik, European Union commissoner for green affairs, says unless habits change scarcity could see prices spike

Janez Potočnik, the EU commissioner for the environment, linked the current economic crisis gripping the eurozone with potential future crises driven by price spikes in key resources, including energy and raw materials.

“It’s very difficult to imagine [lifting Europe out of recession] without growth, and very difficult to imagine growth without competitiveness, and very difficult to be competitive without resource efficiency.”

Unless consumers and businesses take action to use resources more efficiently – from energy and water to food and waste, and raw materials such as precious metals – then their increasing scarcity, rising prices and today’s wasteful methods of using them will drive up costs yet further and reduce Europe’s standard of living, Potočnik warned.

He said: “We have simply no choice. We have to use what we have more efficiently, or we will fail to compete. Resource efficiency is a real competitiveness issue for European companies.”

Some European regulations will have to be altered in order to ensure the efficient use of energy, water and raw materials, and to protect the natural environment.

Potočnik gave notice that his department was scouring through existing regulations and proposed new ones in order to ensure that none would encourage resources to be used profligately, and to safeguard the EU’s natural resources for the future.

The stark warning highlighted the increasing scarcity and rising price of some key resources, including energy and water, but also food and raw materials from metals, ores and minerals.

Although most of the west is still mired in economic woes, much of the developing world including rapidly emerging economies such as China and India are forging ahead financially, and as a consequence are consuming a far greater share of the world’s resources.

The current economic models used by businesses and governments have failed so far to take this rapid change into account, and one of the associated problems is that many business models are predicated on cheap resources and an inefficient use of raw materials and energy.

“This is an issue of competitiveness,” Potočnik said. “China is understanding that this is a megatrend. We can’t ignore it.”

Resources are under increasing constraint, as developing countries lift more of their population out of poverty. “If our current living standards are to be maintained, and the aspirations of developing countries satisfied, then the global economy will need to be changed drastically,” Potočnik said.

“If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change.” He added: “This will be an enormous pressure on resources, which we are already overusing.”

Labour costs now make up a much smaller proportion of most manufacturers’ overheads than the cost of raw materials and energy, according to Potočnik. A greater proportion of those resources is also coming from overseas, with the attendant potential problems around security of supply. “Europe is importing more than half its resource use in many areas,” he said.

Concerns have grown in recent months over the supply of some key resources, such as rare earths. These are used in many modern products, from mobile phones to renewable energy equipment, but the supply is small and China controls many of the sources.

China has about a third of global rare earth deposits in its territory, but it accounts for nearly all of the production because of its efforts in this key market. Recently, the Beijing government has made moves to reduce exports, in order to help its indigenous manufacturers, and this trend has worried western governments.

But these supply constraints are not yet fully priced in to world markets, and while the economic crisis continues the issue is likely to remain overshadowed – which could lay up future problems, according to the European commission.

“There are real problems with security of supply and this is not yet on the radar screen,” Potočnik said.

Potočnik called for resource use to become a “mainstream” issue in economics. Recalling his own education as an economist, he noted: “I was taught that water was a free commodity, like air. We really do need to have the internalisation of these costs.”