Vending machines drawing fire

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — Lifeline or a waste of electricity?

That’s the question causing controversy in the Kanto region, as those suffering rolling blackouts outside of Tokyo’s 23 wards grow angry at the fact that hot and cold drink vending machines operated by Coca-Cola, Suntory, Kirin and others have not all been turned off.

With more than 5.5 million vending machines in operation nationwide, Japan has a reputation for being an automated heaven, where anything from beer to toothbrushes is sold in vending machines.

But corporations, government offices and individuals in Tokyo and elsewhere have been urged by their local governments to conserve electricity, and many have turned off not only their lights but also vending machines inside their buildings.

But street corner vending machines selling Coca-Cola, Suntory and Kirin products 24 hours a day have come under fire from those outside the capital who have mounted an international campaign to try to get Coca-Cola in particular to turn off its machines.

“Across eastern Japan, we are experiencing rolling power cuts and train service cuts to compensate for the nuclear plant outages. The most electric power-hungry products are soft-drinks machines that have both refrigeration and heating (for hot canned coffee) and Coca-Cola has perhaps the largest network of beverage machines across Japan,” said Chiba Prefecture-based Canadian speechwriter John Harris, who launched a campaign Wednesday to get Coke to turn off its machines.

Coca-Cola says that while its machines are still on, they have taken a number of measures to reduce electrical consumption.

“We’ve reduced energy consumption of existing machines by turning off the lights of machines in all indoor locations for 24 hours. We’ve been turning off the lights of machines in outdoor locations even during the night time, excluding some machines at specific locations where the lighting should remain on for public safety,” said Kanako Ogata, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman.

At present, both Suntory and Kirin also continue to operate vending machines within Tokyo. A Suntory spokesman said the company is aware of the criticism and it is considering whether to turn off its machines within the capital.

However, Kanako Hayashida, a spokeswoman for Kirin Beverage Co. Ltd., said Kirin vending machines continue to operate as they constitute a lifeline for residents.

The huge number of vending machines dotted around Japan has long been the target of criticism from both environmentalists and antinuclear activists, who calculated in the early 1990s that if Japan were to shut down all of its vending machines, the drop in electricity demand would be equivalent to the output of one nuclear plant.

While advances in energy-efficient vending machines have increased since then, so had the number of machines: from roughly 3.6 million in 1992 to 5.5 million nationwide today. There are about 980,000 Coca-Cola machines, 467,000 Suntory and 237,000 Kirin vending machines nationwide.

No official figures are available for the amount of electricity all these vending machines consume. But Mitsumasa Takeda, an Osaka-based global warming researcher, has studied the effects of Japan’s vending machines on power consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

He estimates that if just Tokyo shut off all of its vending machines, that would cut 40 percent off the power use of all machines nationwide.