05 May 1997 00:00 [Source: ACN]
Japan faces some key hurdles as it aims to recycle all plastics containers by 2000
By Andrew Mollet
JAPAN started implementation of its phased plastics recycling programme on 1 April with the introduction of legislation which makes the recycling of a number of waste products - including polyethylene terephthalate (PET) containers - compulsory. Other types of polymer containers will be subject to compulsory recycling by 2000.
Under the new legislation, local governments have to collect the waste, wash it, and store it temporarily. Different companies, which will be obligatorily contracted, then pick up the waste and recycle it.
Acting as intermediary between the local governments which collect the waste and the businesses which recycle it is the Japan Container and Packages Recycling Association.
'The association's main tasks include designating recyclers, and providing subsidies from the levy - around Yen102 000 (US$808.6)/tonne - that we impose on manufacturers of PET containers to these companies to convert waste into recycled products,' explained one of its directors, Hirokaz Doi.
However, the law faces a number of significant hurdles. First and foremost, it remains vague on targets, simply stating that 'as much PET should be recycled as possible'.
According to Mitsuhiro Maeda of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (Miti), a testing period is needed before any concrete targets can be set: 'First we need to see just much we can realistically expect to be collected for recycling,' he said.
At the same time, major problems exist in the actual collection and recycling of the PET. The new law puts PET collection in the hands of local governments, but there are serious doubts both within the industry and among central government officials over just how efficiently local bodies can carry out the task.
'Many authorities lack the infrastructure and will to perform the task as well as the law envisages,' argued one government official. His view is echoed by Doi, who admits that a number of local government sorted-selection systems are not yet up to the task.
'Moreover, in some areas there exist no suitable local recycling contractors. As a result, the burden of treating the waste is in the hands of the local authorities, many of which are simply not in a position to do so.'
But Doi remains unconcerned about these problems, which he admits could take some time to resolve. 'We knew there would be problems when the law was drafted. These are not a major concern when consideration is given to the fact that similar systems in France and Germany took several years to take root.'
A number of plastics companies have already begun investing voluntarily in the recycling business. Nippon Steel, for example, has set up a joint venture with several companies, including Mitsui & Co, and the Kitakyushu municipal government to recycle PET bottles.
The venture will be capitalised at Yen 100m and will build a recycling facility at Nippon Steel's plant in Kitakyushu, Kyushu, at a cost of about Yen 1.5bn. The facility is expected to come onstream in April 1998. It initially plans to recycle 1000 tonne/year of plastic bottles recovered in the city, raising the volume to 8000 tonne/year when collection begins in the rest of Kyushu island, a spokesman said.
Nissan Motor has also linked up with Mitsubishi Chemical to design a new fibre derived from recycled PET into sound-absorbing material used for vehicle dashboards. The company is the first Japanese carmaker to recycle PET bottles in the form of car parts, and plans to recycle more than 10m PET bottles/year by the turn of the century.
'The subsidies provided for using such waste product will mean considerable savings in the long term,' said a Nissan official.
However, most analysts and resin manufacturers believe that the law, in the short term at least, will have minimal impact on PET resin producers.
'The ones who will have to adjust their operations are PET container manufacturers - it will take several years before sufficient quantities of PET are recycled to make a serious dent into demand for virgin PET resin, particularly since the quality of recycled PET is still a long way from reaching that of virgin PET,' argued one source at Mitsui Toatsu.
Doi agreed, adding that 'in the meantime, we are happy to encourage its use in areas where quality is not that important'.
It is largely for this reason that other polymer resin producers, who have a three-year period of grace before they are encompassed by the law, appear to be relatively sanguine about the situation.
'Quite frankly, at the moment they are simply waiting to see what the actual effects of the law will be on PET resin producers. Until then, there is little they can do,' said Tommy Tang, chemicals analyst at Merrill Lynch.
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