NAKA, Ibaraki Pref. — Every year, Japan throws away 650,000 tons of refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines and television sets, making up 1 percent of the nation’s annual garbage output.

Most of this goes straight to landfills, where the old appliances may be stripped of steel parts and crushed, or simply buried whole. But an industry association of appliance manufacturers has recently devised a new way to take out the oversize trash.

Recycle it, says the nonprofit Association for Electric Home Appliances. The association opened an experimental recycling factory in Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, in April. Over the course of one year, the plant will recycle 20,000 units, a project designers hope will lead to the development of a national recycling system for home appliances.

The 6,000-sq.-meter plant is the first in the world to integrate the treatment of four types of electric appliances, said Kiyoshi Ueno, a general manager for research and development at AEHA’s Tokyo headquarters.

The plant has already received attention from international media, and plans are set for a group of European Union officials to tour the facility in the fall, he said. The culmination of a four-year, 5 billion yen national project, the factory was built using funds and technology from AEHA member-companies, including Mitsubishi Materials Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Sony Corp., and was subsidized by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

In the treatment process, intact appliances are broken down into reusable resources such as iron, copper, aluminum and glass, while hazardous materials such as CFCs and HCFCs are recovered from refrigerators and air conditioners for decomposition.

Waste plastics and other particles collected in the treatment process are heat-treated and then cooled to create oil used to fuel the plant. The test factory also uses a high-tech cryogenic crushing process, in which appliance compressors and motors are dipped in liquid nitrogen, freezing them to extremely cold temperatures and making them easier to break apart, Ueno said.

To reduce the plant’s environmental impact, the facility was built without chimneys. It releases no liquids outside, and is surrounded by soundproof walls, he added. A central computer system calculates the volume of valuable resources recovered from the treated items, allowing the plant to continually increase its own efficiency as well as collect data to be used in designing future recycling systems, Ueno said. “The plant is more of a research institute than an actual factory. It allows us to conduct various experiments in recycling,” he said.

For a tour of the plant, contact the Association for Electric Home Appliances in Tokyo at (03) 3578-1311 or fax (03) 3578-1677

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