[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 July, 2003, 00:12 GMT 01:12 UK
Japanese plant takes on e-waste
J Mark Lytle
In Yashiro, Japan

With mountains of discarded household appliances blighting Japan's landscape, one Japanese company has decided to take recycling into the space age.

Recycling fridges at Metec
The building is peopled by scientists and technicians in white coats
Matsushita Electric, best known for its Panasonic brand, has led the way through its advanced recycling plant in the Western Japanese town of Yashiro.

The Matsushita Eco-Technology Center, (Metec), came into being after the Japanese Government passed tough recycling measures that came into effect in 2001.

Estimates put the number of Japanese white goods dumped in rivers or at the side of roads at around 20 million a year.

In a nation where most homes simply do not have room for redundant equipment, the need for legislation was clear.

Multi-million plant

The big problem is what to do with domestic white goods and electrical appliances at the end of their working life.

Legislation now states that television sets, air-conditioners, washing machines and refrigerators must be between 50% and 60% recyclable.

The Metec plant
The Metec plant cost 27m to build
For their part consumers have to pay up to 4,600 yen (25) to dispose of appliances.

Matsushita had the five billion yen (27m) Metec plant up and running to coincide with the laws, ready to receive the unwanted hardware after it makes its way through a complex distribution network that begins with a pickup at the consumer's doorstep.

The imposing plant stands out amid a broad tableau of paddy fields, most of which supply high-grade rice to the region's sake brewers.

Matsushita had to set up a local consultation group to demonstrate that its closed-loop water system would not pollute the environment or that delivery trucks would not keep residents awake at night. It still meets roughly quarterly.

Inside, Metec could hardly come as more of a surprise. Instead of the anticipated wrecking gear manned by grimy grunts, the building is peopled by scientists and technicians in white coats and safety goggles.

There are more computer displays than wrenches on view here.

While Metec president Nobutaka Tsutsumi is understandably proud of the technology on show, he is also keen to emphasise the centre's educational potential.

"Metec can be used to teach elementary and junior high school students about the importance of the environment and recycling. In just two years, we've had over 19,000 visitors," he told BBC News Online.

Divided waste

As for what those visitors get to peruse, the heart, or perhaps stomach, of the machine is four disassembly lines, one for each kind of appliance.

Recycling televisions at Metec
Recycling is only one part of a product's lifecycle
Nobutaka Tsutsumi, Metec president
In their first year, they handled over half a million TVs, air-cons, washing machines and fridges and are currently running at 10% to 15% above the rate required by law.

Each unit is taken apart, either by hand as in the case of the TVs, or by brute force as with the washing machines.

The parts are then separated out. Glass in television sets is carefully dissected with Matsushita's own breed of cutter to keep the toxic leaded glass in the rear portion away from the safer glass in the screen.

The result is two kinds of glass that ends up in new TVs.

Separating the different parts of a washing machine requires a complex arrangement of magnets and wind blowers to produce cleanly divided waste.

Different colours of polypropylene plastic tend to end up together in a muddy-coloured mix, which the company uses in 'non-aesthetic' components that remain out of sight in new machines.

Interestingly, all washing machines contain a balancing component filled with salt water to keep them on an even keel while spinning. This, too, is recovered to prevent it leaking and causing steel to rust before it can be removed.

Similarly meticulous techniques are employed on fridges and air-conditioners and Metec researchers are constantly developing new ways to get the most out of the raw materials that arrive at their door each day.

"Recycling is only one part of a product's lifecycle," explained Mr Tsutsumi.

"It is important that we study the whole cycle from design and product planning through procurement of materials, production, distribution, sales and customer usage to recovery and recycling."

Cynics may denounce Metec and similar corporate schemes as simply dealing with waste caused by demand their parent companies create.

In Japan something has to be done to cope with the tide of electronic waste. This plant is but a drop in the ocean.

A mobile is not just for Christmas
24 Dec 02  |  Technology
Foiling the fools and the fraudsters
21 Jun 02  |  Science/Nature
Computer dumping 'polluting Asia'
25 Feb 02  |  Science/Nature
Recycling law boosts hi-tech transfer
04 Jun 03  |  Technology


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific