Japan Recycles

One in an Occasional Look at Japan's Economy

T he first dry spring wind knocked the sakura flowers from their branches, where they freely assembled themselves into small pockets of white around the city. Exposure to such harsh elements was leaving both sides of my face feeling especially rough this morning. But then again, yesterday afternoon's assignment at the Kinshicho WINS horse racing parlor and subsequent all-night pachinko and hostess club marathon probably contributed its share as well.

I rubbed my right cheek and then pivoted my palm at my chin to work on the left. Then I rolled over onto my side. I brushed the flowers from my hair and rose to stand on a grassy bluff at the moat near JR Ichigaya Station with the orange express trains rolling in both directions on the tracks below. Before I began my trek to the newsroom, I noticed a worker loading a dumped TV onto the back of a truck on busy Yasakuni Street.

Just then, a distant, yet still quite annoying, voice in my head weaved through a residual clanging of steel balls and empty glasses to a point where it could be processed: Municipalities throughout Tokyo were overwhelmed by people throwing away household appliances to avoid having to pay for their disposal with the enactment of a new law that came into effect April 1st.

It was junior reporter Junko's voice. I paused just before crossing the bridge over the moat to contemplate the significance of a week-old statement amongst the thousands of hers that I had made a point of ignoring. I concluded there probably wasn't any and continued walking with cars from the morning commute streaming by in both directions. I was wrong, of course.

Upon arrival at my office, she greeted me at the doorway by thrusting a report into my empty right hand. My left had my lighter at the ready. I smiled at her, hung my coat on a hanger, tipped my hat to my framed Eisenhower wall portrait, and settled behind my desk. I again rubbed both sides of my face before firing up a cigarette and turning to page 1.

The new law intends for manufacturers, retailers, and consumers to all share the cost in the proper disposal of four kinds of electrical appliances - TVs, washing machines, refrigerators and air conditioners. Consumers will have their appliances picked up by the retailer that sold it to them originally. Retailers must then return the appliances to the manufacturers where the appliance's reusable parts and materials will be recycled. Consumers, meanwhile, must pay a recycling and transportation fee.

Formerly the responsibility of disposal was left to the local governments. The government charged a small fee to pickup the appliances and their final destination was a nearby landfill. With the prospect of the nation's landfills being topped off by the 2008, this program will then attempt to wean Japan from that of a throwaway society to one that recycles by starting with the reduction of four bulky and generally incompressible appliances that are estimated to account for 1% of all landfill garbage. The Mainichi Shimbun however insists, "The central government and the consumer-electronics industry will play a central role in ensuring that the electrical-appliance recycling system gets off to a smooth start." After one week, a smooth start can indeed be claimed. By the police, that is.

Since the law places the monetary burden ($25-$50 depending on the appliance) on the consumer, a rational question arises: If I happen across a large stretch of empty road late one evening and nobody is looking, why not just dump this refrigerator and skirt the fee? At least that is what a 51-year old man thought prior to being nabbed cold by the police, the nation's first arrest under the new law, for dumping a 70-kilogram model in an area of Yokohama where appliances had reportedly been dumped before. Kyodo reports, "they were staking out the area when the man arrived with the refrigerator and washing machine in a truck, and quoted him as saying he did not want to pay the recycling fees."

By midweek, police activity had surfaced down in Yame, Fukuoka Prefecture. "Police raided a garbage company's office and its president's home on Wednesday," again Kyodo reports, "on suspicion of illegally discarding electric appliances." The unnamed company was the second to be grilled over organized dumping of appliances. A grand haul indeed - 200 illegally dumped TV sets. Lest one think that only Japan's finest are cracking down on the dumping, one man in Nagoya learned that even fellow citizens are pressing themselves into duty.

In Aichi Prefecture, police rounded out a busy week by filing criminal charges against a 40-year-old taxi driver for dumping a washing machine. In cleaning up their city, the police, Kyodo says, "moved against the suspect, acting on a telephone call that the suspect was seen leaving the washing machine on the roadside in Nagoya's Nakamura district Saturday afternoon."

While these arrests have followed basic textbook police protocol; the tip, the stakeout, the move, and the subsequent arrest, some of the methods used to commit these crimes have been so unique that the police have been forced to borrow a tactic commonly found in the United States - that of profiling, but with a small twist. The Yomiuri Shimbun reports that the Construction and Transport Ministry has been informed of cases where homeless people have been paid by retailers to dump appliances into reaches of the Tama River in Tokyo. But even with such an easily identifiable potential suspect, the police, however, have been unable to stem this tide because they "are hesitant to take action against a homeless person who they may suspect of possessing unnecessary electrical appliances." The Ministry maintains, however, that it has asked that "patrolmen watch over the river and surrounding areas after April."

The police are not the only ones hesitating under this new law. Retailers have been playing a game of cat and mouse with each other in determining what fee to charge consumers for the transportation of the appliance. The fear is that charging a higher price than the shop down the street will result in the loss of a future customer. "They are still watching each other's moves," Motoo Shimuzu, executive director of Nippon Electric Big-stores Association, tells Kyodo in reference to the fact that only one company in his association of 48 members had announced its fee (between $20 and $30) prior to the implementation of the law.

But hope should not be dashed just yet. It is still early and during the first week of implementation, 13,000 appliances did manage to successfully bypass a Japanese street or riverbank and properly arrive at a processing center. Additionally, appliance traders are expected to clean up. Since consumers will more than likely not want to pay the fees, traders will be able to easily pick up the appliances for next to nothing and subsequently export them to developing countries that are in need of partially functioning and aged appliances. There they will be sold for a small profit. Critics, though, still have their doubts about the program's potential success.

Shozo Kajiyama, an expert in environmental law, feels that this law does not provide enough encouragement for society to change to one that emphasizes recycling. He tells the Daily Yomiuri, "Considering the costs are all on the consumers, the manufacturers won't feel any pain under the new system. A recycling mentality will not develop."

He may be right about society not changing, but Japan's police force might just become the world's finest.

I tossed my cigarette into the tray.

"Well, this doesn't concern me," I said, putting my feet on my desk, "I don't even own one of those appliances." I stretched and yawned.

"Not even a refrigerator?" she asked, folding her arms across her chest.

"Nope, that's what a convenience store's for." I lit another grit and blew a little smoke her way, hoping to get her on her way and end this little cross-examination before it starts.


"All hostess clubs are properly climate controlled," I assured. She didn't budge.

"Nothing worth watching on TV?"

"The screens at the WINS parlors are always crystal clear." A small change in facial expression but still no significant local motion.

"What do you wash your clothes with?" She leaned over my desk and stared straight at me.

"Do what?" I adjusted my tie and gazed at Ike.

She had forced my hand. I had to go with my one and only ace. "Say Junko," I looked right at her, "how about a nice hot cup of coffee - black, no sugar?" I picked up my empty coffee cup and held it outward. 

I am sure that Marlin Perkins saw finer displays of grace, speed, and agility in times of flight in the wild kingdom. But in some ways I'd like to think he hadn't.

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