Japanese Recycling Law Takes Effect

Placing itself once again on the cutting edge of recycling law, Japan in April enacted a new measure requiring retailers and manufacturers to take back used air conditioners, televisions, washing machines and refrigerators.

“This is the first take-back law in the world,” says Kanji Tamamushi, a Japanese environmental consultant who has followed the law since its introduction in 1998.

While the Home Appliances Recycling Law places most of the financial responsibility on manufacturers and the Japanese government, it also requires consumers to play a role. Under the new law, consumers must initiate the transfer of their used appliances to the take-back sites and pay additional collection and recycling fees to retailers.

Retailers then must pay manufacturers to recycle the appliances and to ensure that future products are made from more recycle-friendly materials.

The government's job is to enforce the new law and to monitor manufacturers' and retailers' compliance. To this end, the Tokyo-based Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), and the Tokyo-based Ministry of Environment (ME) may check companies' financial records during the next few years.

The new law also requires manufacturers, retailers and importers to publicize their collection and recycling fees. Current publicized fees for consumers are 2,400 yen, or about $20, for washing machines; 2,700 yen, or $22, for televisions; 3,500 yen, or $29, for air conditioners and 4,600 yen, or $38, for refrigerators.

In addition to Japan's long-term goal of creating a “closed loop” economy where used materials become new products, the law's primary goal is diverting waste from the country's crowded landfills, Tamamushi says. The average life-span of a Japanese landfill is only 8 years, according to an article in “Recycling Laws International” (RLI), from Raymond Communications, College Park, Md. Tamamushi says there's an average of 1½ years left for industrial landfills and an average of 11 years left for municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills.

While Japan's 600,000 annual tons of household appliances account for only 1 percent of total MSW, this amount is significant, Tamamushi says. “It doesn't seem like much,” he explains, “but it is difficult to reduce these appliances' volume, and this can cause serious problems for a landfill.”

Before the new law took effect, Tamamushi continues, nearly half of all collected appliances were dumped into landfills without being crushed, while the other half were shredded. In some cases, metal parts were removed, but most of the products' resources were dumped without being re-used. And, Japan's landfills were filling up rapidly with the shredder dust created.

Despite the government's commitment to enforce the new law, some are concerned that consumers and retailers will continue to dump these appliances illegally to avoid paying extra fees, especially in light of Japan's current sluggish economy.

“The country is bracing [itself] for illegal dumping,” says Michele Raymond, Publisher of Raymond Communications. “However, Japanese [culture] is traditionally very cooperative, [and] you could probably … charge Japanese consumers for recycling in cases where you could never do that with Americans.”

There are mixed predictions for the law's future. Tamamushi says that in time, the new system will run smoothly. “There will be a lot of confusion and uncertainty in the first year or so, but after that, it should be stabilized,” he says. But the law is a bit vague, he admits, and future recycling costs remain unclear. Some are asking who will pay for illegally dumped appliances, and whether consumer and retailer fees will be enough to cover all recycling costs. Raymond sees mandatory design requirements as a potential problem for manufacturers.

Despite doubtful sentiments, several manufacturers and retailers have formed alliances to smooth the transition. There are currently 190 take-back sites operated by two groups of manufacturers and retailers. One group includes Matsushita, Toshiba and JVC, and the other includes Hitachi, Mitsubishi Electric, Sharp, Sanyo and Sony.

Punishment for noncompliance is as much as 500,000 yen, or $4,200.

In cases where manufacturers or importers are unknown, retailers must transfer the materials to independent bodies, which include nonprofit organizations that conduct recycling.

As early as next year, appliances such as computers and microwave ovens will be added to the law.

Ultimately, both Tamamushi and Raymond concede that it is too soon to evaluate the law's effectiveness. “We'll just have to wait and see,” Raymond says.