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February 28, 2007

 

Cyclical Use of Resources and Sustainability in Production and Consumption

moriguchisan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Yuichi Moriguchi, Head of Research Center for Material Cycles and Waste Management of the National Institute for Environmental Studies

Today's society depends on a production/consumption cycle that consists of take-in of such natural resources as wood, petroleum, coal and agricultural and marine products from the earth; manufacture and consumption of products; and disposal of unnecessary wastes. On the other hand, infrastructures including sewerage, roads, dams and bridges have been accumulated. Those two economic activities compose this affluent society. What is important here is the fact that resources are limited and waste disposal sites are limited as well. For example, emitting CO2 is equivalent to dumping enormous quantities of trash into the air. The atmosphere as a disposal site is being saturated now. Under the circumstances where the cycle has come to be clogged and thus the affluence of our society is endangered, I would like to seek a way that can help us form a sustainable cycle of resources.

What is a sound material-cycle society?

Is a society with mass production, mass consumption and mass disposal vice? It was not vice at least in the past. During the high economic growth period, consumption was a virtue. It was believed that consumption would energize economy and make the society rich. Later on, however, environmental problems caused by waste disposal became obvious and a new concept of "sustainable development" was formulated. Based on the idea that environmental problems were caused by negligence in taking measures against each individual case of pollution, the structure of the economic society itself has gradually come to be recognized as a cause of such problems. This is the reason why we have become determined to shift to a sound material-cycle society, which is in a directly opposite position to the society with mass production, mass consumption and mass disposal.

What is a sound material-cycle society really about? There is no definitive answer to the question. When the concept was born, the original Japanese term was translated "recycling-based society". Doesn't this sound like "a society with mass production, mass consumption and mass recycling"? Is it appropriate translation? Before discussing the sound material-cycle society, we'd better identify what the problem is in today's society. We are aware, at least in Japan, that the current tendency is not really good. As for what kind of material-cycle society we should aim at or who should do what, however, even specialists have different opinions. Under such circumstances, it is quite natural that citizens would feel at a loss what to do. Having a variety of opinions is not a bad thing. It is important to think why there is a difference among them. Let us take PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles as an example.

Flow of resources, taking PET bottles as an example

Mini Workshop
A PET bottle is a symbol of a convenient throwaway society. What kind of measures should we take? Each participant shall choose one from the following five options and discuss about it with your colleagues in the same group. Choose a realistic and adoptable option based on the assumption that not every consumer is interested in the environmental issue.


  1. There is no specific problem in the current system, as the PET bottles in the separate collection bins are recycled by the government or businesses. As long as the costs of trash collection or recycling are paid by taxes, consumers as a whole incur such necessary costs.

  2. Costs of recycling, including separate collection, should be added to the product price and fairly shared by consumers, as such costs vary according to the type of packages. Consumers who like convenient products would choose PET bottles though they were expensive.

  3. Resources are consumed when a large volume of PET bottles are circulated, even though they were recycled. Therefore nonreusable PET bottles should be replaced by washable and reusable PET bottles like glass bottles.

  4. PET bottles are produced from petroleum, which will be exhausted. We should shift to the packages made of paper or other materials that do not require petroleum.

  5. Not only PET bottle drink but also cans, cartons and all other packages of drink sold at convenience stores, supermarkets or through vending machines are wasting resources. We'd better use canteens as we did in the past or drink in coffee shops.


Many groups chose option 2, 3 or 5 and few chose option 1 which represents the current law. Why? The framework of the Law for Promotion of Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packaging (Recycling Law) is that consumers help with separate collection of bottles, municipalities collect them and businesses are responsible for the recycling. The law is successful in clarifying roles of each parties. For that reason, however, communication among parties tends to be poor and the front-line people of each party are not linked with each other. This is a problem.

Production of PET bottles has been increasing for more than ten years and reached 500,000 tons per year. The total amount of plastic used per year is 10 million tons. It means PET bottles account for approximately five percent of the total use. The product cycle starts from packaging manufacturer and the bottles are passed to beverage manufacturers and consumers. Then, they are collected by municipalities and delivered to recycling businesses. Fifty percent of the bottles are collected by municipalities and more than sixty percent is eventually collected if collection at retail stores included.

The cost for recycling used PET bottles, including separate collection, was approximately 10 yen per bottle, but it has been gradually pushed down. In 2007, the average commission paid to the recycling industry finally became less than zero. It means they are not wastes any more but are resources that can be sold. (Note: They can be sold because they are collected. The cost for collection is higher than the bid price of collected bottles.) There is technology that helps produce PET bottles directly from collected PET bottles, for sure. But the volume of petroleum required is almost equal to the one required for production from new raw materials and the cost is also high. For this reason, collected bottles are often recycled to become synthetic fleece wear, carpets or men's dress shirts. The fibers in the PET bottles have value.

Collected PET bottles are distributed across borders. Although the Recycling Law defines that they must be recycled by domestic manufacturers, they are often sold to China at 20,000 to 30,000 (as of February 2007) yen per ton.

PET is better suited for recycling in a way. "Other plastics" like lunch boxes and confectionary packages may include varied types of plastic and thus production of reprocessed resin at recycling businesses after separate collection would cost 200 yen per kilogram. As only half of them have quality endurable for secondary use, it would cost 400 yen per kilogram in actuality. What is worse, they can only be sold at 10 yen per kilogram. On the other hand, if the product were produced directly from raw materials, it would cost only 200 yen per kilogram and be superior in quality. In the workshop, there was an opinion that we should assume the necessary cost for recycling, but it would not simply mean that we could produce goods of high quality.

Resources traveling around the world

If we turn our eyes to other materials, it is said that 20 million units of electric home appliances are disposed of every year. For example, out of 5 million air conditioners discarded a year, only 2 million are collected and recycled by manufacturers. In other words, 3 million used air conditioners disappear every year. Recently, we often come across small trucks running around to collect such appliances at no charge. It is rumored that collected appliances are exported to other nations.

We hear, more often than ever, the news that alarm bells of volunteer fire fighter teams or steel trench covers are stolen. The price hike of metal scraps is the cause of these crimes. They are supposedly sold to developing nations in Asia to satisfy their needs for metal resources.

When we see the crude steel production in the world, Japan has maintained 100 million tons per year for several decades and the U.S. and EU have stayed at around 150 million tons. On the other hand, production in China jumped up to 400 million tons last year, showing unprecedentedly abrupt increase. China is in need of huge amount of resources including iron and importing them from every part of the world.

At first, Japan was assuming that it would build a sound material-cycle society within the nation. The circumstances changed and China is swallowing up a massive amount of resources now. Is this an evil phenomenon? It may be said that recycled resources exported from Japan is preventing China from digging out new resources.

Existence of a large volume of wastes is an evidence of using a large volume of resources. Mining for resources imposes significant impact on the environment, which is a serious problem. However, each individual impact is not a problem here. What is required in the first place is the awareness that a society based on mass production, mass consumption and mass disposal is not sustainable. It is not fair to insist that developing nations should not build the same society as developed nations just because all resources on the earth will run out. Recycling is not a solution. We should avoid unnecessary consumption of resources. We need to build a society based on the principle of 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle), placing priority in this order.

How we should tackle the problem

In the past, we tackled the problem using end-of-pipe techniques like wastewater treatment facilities immediately before the pollution was released to the environment. There was obviously a limit to this approach. You can easily understand that this method does not work on CO2 emission. We need to shift to an approach that minimizes emission itself.

Based on the above discussion, what society we should aim at? The report on the sound material-cycle society in 2002 describes three scenarios; technology development promotion, lifestyle revolution, and development of environmental industries. As extreme scenarios are difficult to realize, I suppose that the third one is the most appropriate, where environmentally friendly technologies are promoted, how the economy should be is reconsidered, richness is maintained and the society develops.

Certainly, environmental issues are restrictions imposed on us, but the Japanese society and technologies are skillful at overcoming such restrictions. If we would use the ability productively, we should be able to establish an international standing that Japan is a good and sustainable nation. The excellent technology it has in the field of resource and energy productivity will help us overcome the restrictions on the environment including global warming and on resources, and contribute to the realization of sustainable production and consumption in the world as a birthplace of the eco-industrial revolution.

Making the most of people as resources

While watching Japan's competitiveness in the world, we have to resolve the domestic problems in the regional areas including shrinking population. Although the challenge to vitalize such areas, including maintenance of the primary industries and enhancement of the welfare, is not always targeted to the field of the "environment", tackling such problems is important for sustainability of the country. Now, we need to consider the following questions; how we can find the way to solve the issues in the fields of the environment, welfare and economy all together; how Japan, not only the urban areas but also the whole nation, should be; and what the ideal figure of the nation is.

Energy efficiency is low in regional areas, because public transportation systems such as subways are not well established and an automobile is essential as a transportation device. From the viewpoint of medical services for the elderly people, it might be more efficient to have a smaller residential area than allowing them to live scattered around a large area. If a local government tries to maximize the efficiency of its limited public finance while maintaining richness specific to the region, it must consider, in many cases, the environmental and other issues at a time. Being aware of this point is important, it has been discussed only by the environmental researchers. Rather, this is a problem that should be addressed by politicians. At the same time, researchers should have their own perspective on how they could build the future of regional areas, based on the analysis of the environmental issues.

Resources include not only natural ones such as fossil fuel, minerals, water and forest but also artificial ones including buildings and physical structures. The most important resource in today's society, I believe, is people. When we think about sustainability, we have to know that everything has the limit. But we should not give up thinking about it, just because depletable things are running out. Failure to do so would result in further curtailed opportunities in the future. It is important for us to accumulate wisdom that enables us to live without such resources. I hope you will accumulate intellectual assets named wisdom to solve problems in the future while consuming a certain amount of things, and thus make full use of your abilities to build a brighter future.

In my opinion, younger generations should avoid passive way of thinking like "society cannot be changed anyway". You cannot change others and the past. But you can change yourself and the future. It is important for you to know things widely but shallowly, while studying some of them thoroughly. It helps you have both comprehensive perspective and realistic viewpoints so that you will be able to recognize the relation between the whole and its components. Lastly, I urge you to improve your communication skills and try to face the society with your friends and colleagues.

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