The system to recycle used household electric appliances, which was introduced in 2001, has contributed to a reduction in the amount of garbage dumped at waste-disposal sites and promoted reuse of precious resources from discarded appliances. It is believed to have aided the development of recycling technologies and the establishment of waste recycling as a business.
The system is currently under review by the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry so as to increase the ratio of used appliances properly collected for recycling by the manufacturers and to prevent illegal dumping. Manufacturers should also consider reducing the fee charged to consumers for recycling used appliances, which is seen as one reason behind the lingering problem of illegal dumping.
When they get rid of TV sets, refrigerators, air conditioners and washing machines, consumers cannot dispose of them as municipal waste, but need to pay recycling fees to have them collected by retailers. The retailers hand over the appliances to their manufacturers, which are required by the 2001 law to reuse the parts and materials including such metals as iron, copper and aluminum for their new products.
Recycling fees are set by each manufacturer. The fees have not substantially come down since the system was first introduced — except for air conditioners.
Consumers need to pay around ¥3,000 for a large TV set and about ¥5,000 for a large-size refrigerator. While the rates for air conditioners have been cut in half, it still costs consumers around ¥2,000 to ¥3,000 to dispose of a unit. This cost prompts some consumers to dump their used appliances. Each year, more than 100,000 units of such appliances are illegally dumped.
To minimize the cost for users, appliance makers should constantly review the recycling fees and see if the rates appropriately reflect the expenses on their part and the revenue from the sale of extracted reusable materials.
In the government’s review process, a change in the system was discussed so that consumers would pay the recycling fees when they buy the appliances, rather than when they get rid of them, thereby eliminating the risk of illegal dumping to avert the fee payment. But the manufacturers reportedly opposed this approach on the grounds that it is difficult to estimate the cost of recycling their products when the consumers replace them years later.
A different system that started last year for recycling smaller electronic products such as personal computers, cellular phones and digital cameras does not charge consumers any fees. Used products collected by municipalities are sold to designated businesses that recycle the parts and materials on a commercial basis. However, participation in the new system is not mandatory for municipalities, unlike the recycling system for the large-size electric appliances, which is maintained nationwide.
Also in need of monitoring is how much of the used appliances collected from consumers are being recycled. Of the roughly 17 million appliances that households and businesses threw out in fiscal 2012, 67 percent were taken to the original manufacturers for recycling.
Much of the rest circulated as secondhand products, but 8 percent of the total was exported by scrap processors — many of them to China — reflecting the strong demand in the country for recyclable resources. Most of the used appliances exported are believed to be gathered by businesses that collect unnecessary household items, including those that offer to collect them for free. Some of these businesses are not licensed under the law on waste disposal, and have been found to be disassembling the appliances in environmentally damaging ways to extract and sell recyclable parts.
Authorities need to tighten control over these businesses because their operation not only can pose an environmental hazard but also discourage consumers from properly routing their appliances for recycling. To this end, they should try to make proper methods of disposal as inexpensive and convenient as possible for consumers.