Reeling off our names and nationalities between East Halls 1 and 2 of convention center Tokyo Big Sight, our group introduces itself: “I’m from Thailand,” “Vietnam, hi,” “We’re Taiwanese”, “Singapore”, “Korea”.

Our leader, Joe Simonsen, is about to whisk us around Eco-Products 2011, a giant trade fair focusing on eco-friendly goods and services.

Oh, and I’m Matt, from England.

Kazunori Kobayashi, CEO of EcoNetworks, who helped with translators and tours of the event, tells me he’s seen a growth of visitors from Asia, mainly Korea and China.

“Nikkei (the organizer) plans to make this event more international,” he says. “And together with Japan for Sustainability (a nonprofit platform for environmental communication) we have started to help realize that vision.”

Though a trade fair, the ethos behind Eco Products 2011 is that being “green” comes from a desire to change the way we think about the future — and to change the way we live. And being ecologically sound involves far more than simply saving energy. By showcasing innovative thinking and product design, the event is one way the public can learn how they can make a difference through their everyday choices.

There are, of course, the familiar logos of most of Japan’s major manufacturers — here to showcase their latest flagship eco products — but the event doesn’t purely focus on industrial design by giant names. It’s also a forum where many smaller organizations, startups, NGOs, NPOs, universities and entrepreneurs can brush shoulders with the big players. And, with booths flaunting mascots, quizzes and quirky freebies, they all compete for our attention.

The future of travel?

Just four days after Tokyo Motor Show finished in Tokyo Big Sight’s West Arena, the car companies only had a short distance to travel to exhibit their eco-friendly vehicles.

First, Nissan shows us its electric car, the Leaf. Advertised as having “zero emissions” (from the car itself, at least), 8,000 have already been sold in Japan — it could be the future of road travel. But then so could sticking to gasoline, a tactic Mazda shows off with its two-geared “intelligent” (that word comes up a lot) engine, which it says “vastly improves fuel efficiency.”

Toyota and Honda, too, have their own electrical/hybrid ideas — and tire company Yokohama draws us in with a trophy-laden electric racing car, equipped with its BluEarth fuel-efficient performance tires.

The talking-point vehicle-of-the-show, though, is the Toilet Bike Neo. Straddling the bike, the rider sits on, yes, a toilet seat. Thankfully, the toilet seat is not for the waste of the rider — it’s a reference to the fertilized, purified and compressed waste from livestock that made up the bio-gas fuel used to power the bike’s recent journey to Tokyo from Kokura, in Kyushu.

But why use fuel at all? Engineering and construction company Giken tackles what it calls a “social problem” and something that might have put you off that emission-free form of transport — cycling. Walk along any sidewalk in Japan, and you probably have to watch out for more stationary two-wheelers than moving ones. The bicycle might be the perfect zero-emission way to get from A to B, if only B had more space to park.

Giken, whose motto is “Culture above ground, function beneath,” puts forward an interesting solution. Shoppers in Jiyugaoka, Meguro Ward, may already have noticed some Eco-Cycle parking signs — but what they may not know is what lies below them. Roll your bicycle toward a booth, secure the front wheel, tap a registered IC card — or swipe your ¥2,700 monthly ticket — and wait. A mechanism will pull your bicycle into the booth, and then down into a space 12 meters underground where it parks the bicycles carousel style. The Jiyugaoka cycle park can store 144 bicycles, though there are others that can store up to 204. Whenever you are ready, in just 13 seconds, the system will pluck, spin and deliver your bike back to you. No more nuisance parking and no more street-obstruction tickets for cyclists.

Cleaning up your mess

What if the next washing machine you buy could actually tell you how dirty your clothes are? Panasonic’s latest prototype Eco-Navi washing machine does just that.

The idea at the heart of Panasonic’s Eco-Navi range is distributing power where it is needed and saving it where it’s not.

“Usually, you can’t see inside the washing machine,” says the Panasonic attendant, “but with this Eco-Navi you can.”

The specially built exhibition model has a transparent casing, exposing its circuitry, sensors and spinning drum — its functions all clearly labelled with flashing LEDs.

It has four high-tech sensors, with this new model including for the first time a detector in its water outlet. By checking the clarity of the exiting water of a laundry load, the machine is able to adjust the amount of detergent and water needed, and precisely control the time and power of spin cycles, to get those whiter than white shirts. Seeing through the jargon — a “dancing pulsator” and some “intelligent inverters” — whether you are doing a family load or just a couple of days worth of socks, it’ll only use the energy needed, helping streamline your household bills.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most eye-catching. When they make a mundane or necessary everyday task interesting, they are even more impressive. Whenever you turn on a tap, the pressure of the water rushing up through the pipes holds a lot of energy. Plumbing and bathroom company Toto have developed a dynamo, which when placed between the water source and the tap converts some of that energy into electrical power. When your hand triggers a sensor, it opens and closes a valve, releasing water toward those grubby fingers — providing mains power and touch-free washing for the hygiene conscious.

Applications for Toto’s dynamo could include public bathrooms and so called “eco-homes of the future”. At this stage, however, it doesn’t produce much power — about 15 mW — just enough to work a micro-sensor, but also enough to show potential. In the future, the product range could be adapted to harness power from water falling through drains and sinkholes.

Other bright ideas

A clock on your kitchen, office or even bedroom wall showing you how much power you are using compared to average and targeted rates for the hour, might make you think twice about leaving that light on. And the color-coded energy-efficient LED lights that make up the “electricity usage visualization” of Nihon Techno Corporation’s Smart Clock not only look good, they also serve as warning signals. Aim for the “low-usage for the hour” deep green and try to avoid red. The company hopes that if the consumer’s awareness of energy usage is improved, it will encourage them to do their bit for the planet while lowering energy bills.

If you’re wondering about the energy needed to run the Eco Product fair itself, organizers claim to have cut its usage by 30 percent this year, and almost all of the 12,000 kW that is used is produced through biomass, solar power and other sustainable sources. By my calculations, that would be about 8 billion of Toto’s tap mechanisms — but at least that energy goes toward saving more.

Nonprofit and Nongovernmental

In the impressively cooperative NPO and NGO zone — exhibitors here seem happy to share and feed off each other’s ideas — is the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, which is raising funds for and promoting the Tsunagari Nukumori Project. The project, among other things, salvages wood from across the Tohoku region — such as timber destroyed by the March 11 earthquake and following tsunami.

The project’s title, “Tsunagari Nukumori,” uses the Japanese words for “unity” and “warmth and care” — and the warmth bit is literal. The wood collected is chipped, and among its many uses — such as cat litter and soft-toy stuffing — it can be burned as fuel. It has already been used to heat hot baths for many people who have had to do without. The NGOs and NPOs working with the project have installed biomass and wood-chip boilers and solar panels in more than 115 locations across Tohoku. Many evacuation centers, temporary housing projects, meeting places and kindergartens have benefited from such green power.

As I have a break over a (fair-trade) coffee, and take stock of the day, elementary school children run around in color-coded caps trying to finish their eco quizzes; business men and women compare free gifts; and staff hurriedly chase down as many business cards and contacts as they can — all in the name of eco-awareness.

But it’s not just freebies and fun. There’s a serious message to take away, delivered with incredible diversity. A total of 181,487 visitors made it to this year’s event, and hopefully each of them will have a new drive to change their lives; the banners covering the exits rallied the masses — “Green for All, All for Green.”

Eco-Products 2011 was held Dec. 15-17 at Tokyo Big Site. For more information on some of the exhibitors visit, Econetworks: www.econetworks.jp/en. Japan for Sustainability: www.japanfs.org/en. Tsunagari Nukumori Project: www.tsunagari-nukumori.jp.


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