Panasonic’s Novel Japanese Recycling Plant

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Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series looking at Panasonic and its ecological strategies and technological developments.

Story and photos by E.Q. Lam

In Japan, nearly everyone practices the Shinto religion, which worships nature as millions of gods. Also in Japan, a man named Konosuke Matsushita started a company in 1918 that would become Panasonic. The name Matsushita means “below the pine tree,” and pine is an evergreen.

Perhaps it is a stretch to link the above facts to make sense of Panasonic’s embrace of eco-centric business. But Panasonic often cites its founder’s philosophy, which encourages valuing nature and resources, as the basis for its recent adoption of the theme “eco ideas” and the strategy to be the number one green innovation company in the electronics industry by its 100th anniversary in 2018.

A fitting example of its green business is the Panasonic Eco Technology Center (PETEC), in Kato City, near Osaka. It is Panasonic’s home appliance recycling plant, but it is unusual to be located among high-tech companies in Yashiro Science Park, says Kazuyuki Tomita, PETEC’s president. Recycling centers in Japan are usually located in a coastal area landfill or deep in the mountains where there are no residents, he says.

(E.Q. Lam)

Location is not the only unusual thing about PETEC. The walls along the stairway are decorated for a preschool, with fun colors and cartoonish images. Its motto is “treasure hunting”—finding the recoverable materials within the end-of-life appliances.

“So we try to hunt for treasure or gems to recover the resources,” Tomita says, adding jokingly that little gold has been found, however.

“From product to product” is another PETEC concept, meaning that the recovered materials are used in new products. Of 49 recycling facilities in Japan, PETEC boasts that it is the only one with a research and development division. PETEC offers feedback for product development and lets engineers experience how to dismantle a product, so that they learn the value of recovered resources and can apply that understanding in designing products. For example, the material that an air conditioning label is made of can interfere with the ease of recycling the AC panel material, so the type of label and its printing were changed.

Take a mini-tour of PETEC:

Thanks to last year’s special factors where the value of resources increased drastically, PETEC is in the black, Tomita says. “Our [Panasonic Group] president said, ‘You don’t have to make a profit,’ but he did not say make a loss!” he jokes. And PETEC expects its role in promoting recycling-oriented technology to grow more significantly.

“Recycling activity will improve radically through these small [design] changes,” Tomita says. “… Our target is to conduct 3R designing—to incorporate the recycling performance or easiness into the [product] design.”

PETEC also is remarkable because it is a clean recycling facility, with little debris or particles in the air and does not appear from the outside to be a recycling center. It uses a dust collecting system for the environment of its 230 employees. PETEC (which has 250 solar panels that produce 50 kilowatts to power all the lights) has developed advanced recycling technology—such as a high-precision resin selection system and an organic decomposition system—combined with manual dismantling of appliances. Decomposition uses titanium oxide, which decomposes one part and allows for the recovery of what is left of the materials. PETEC uses magnetism to separate iron, and gravity and vibration to recover copper and aluminum. Plastics are sorted in a high-precision air system, where infrared light can pick out a single resin.

(E.Q. Lam)

A total of more than 8 million units have gone through PETEC since the facility began operations in April 2001. PETEC accepts refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, and televisions (the older cathode-ray tubes and LCD flat panel TVs) from 23 manufacturers. It recycles 85 percent of the materials on average, says Takae Tsuchida, plant tour guide. In the past couple years, Japan has switched from cathode-ray tube TVs to flat panel TVs, which has helped to increase the annual number of units recycled from an average 650,000 to more than 1 million units.

Here are the amount of recovered resources converted to more-meaningful data:

  • 129,903 tons of iron = 158,417 cars
  • 20,249 tons of copper = 81 Great Buddha of Nara statues (the statue stands 49 feet tall)
  • 10,928 tons of aluminum = 95 jumbo jet aircraft
(E.Q. Lam)

Education and involvement in the community are important, Tomita says. PETEC formed an environmental conservation council and works with local government and residents; it also outsources some work to another group which employs physically challenged workers. PETEC offers tours to the public, receiving more than 12,000 visitors a year (with only about 1,000 from overseas). It has had 100,000 visitors since tours started in August 2010.

Tomita says there is a NIMBY attitude among consumers. “Everybody understands that we need recycling, but everybody thinks ‘not in my back yard, no way,’” he says.

Japan mandates by law the recycling of end-of-life appliances and electronics, which is unique in the world, Tomita says. “The aim of this unique home appliances recycling law is because Japan, we are not blessed with [lots of] resources,” he says.

The law requires consumers to deliver the products to retailers or manufacturers, which must accept them at designated collection points. Manufacturers must develop methods for recycling and recovery of materials, says Tomita. Consumers pay a recycling fee, which ranges from about $17 to $48 dollars depending on the product and is set every four years by the recycling facilities. But consumers bear only a portion of the costs for the recycling process; manufacturers also face a cost in handling the products. Manufacturers aim to reduce the recycling cost to consumers to zero, Tomita says.

PETEC, as a recycling center, sells the recovered resources. The panel cullet from cathode-ray tube (CRT) TVs are given to glass manufacturers; a new application in Japan is to make cement-like blocks for use on pathways such as outside PETEC, in parks, and at schools, says Tsuchida. Materials from LCD TVs and washing machines are reused in new versions of the same types of products. PETEC also worked with Panasonic’s Home Appliances Company to develop a way to make glass wool from CRT materials.

(E.Q. Lam)

“So we are making every effort to recover these to use in an efficient manner,” Tsuchida says.

Some recovered materials are shipped overseas, if there is no use in new products for them in Japan. “However, our idea is to use the recovered resources as much as possible in Japan,” Tomita says, “because Japan has less resources.”

PETEC also wants to expand recycling in Panasonic locations overseas, Tomita says. “I think we have to localize the recycling factory to fit the law of each country.”

For related articles, see:
Double Energy Savings With DIY Tips and Technology

Panasonic Makes Eco Innovation Central Focus
Exclusive Interview With Panasonic Vice President
Green Energy Park May Be Answer to Power Supply
Technology for Smart Homes, Smart Cities

Travel and accommodations provided by Panasonic Corporation.

Check out more articles by E.Q. Lam.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC. All rights reserved.

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