Not everyone gives in to today’s throwaway society by discarding the drinking cups, food containers and chopsticks they use, but the proliferation of these products makes their use virtually unavoidable.

When it comes to throwaway cups, however, visitors to the Big Eye stadium at Oita Prefecture Sports Park no longer need to fret this option.

On March 15, the 36,000-seat stadium, one of the venues used during the 2002 World Cup soccer finals, started only selling drinks in reusable cups on which consumers pay a deposit — a first for such a large-scale venue, according to the Environment Ministry.

“At first, we were worried that spectators might not bother to take the time to return their cups,” admitted Atsushi Sato of Aim Services Co., a Tokyo-based food service company that supplies the Big Eye’s returnable cups.

But figures show otherwise.

The stadium has hosted seven soccer matches since the cups were introduced.

According to Aim Services data, of the 21,090 reusable cups that were distributed during the first six matches, nearly 80 percent, or 16,736, were returned for reuse.

Visitors pay a 100 yen deposit per cup on top of the price of the drink. They can get a refill for 50 yen less than the price of the first drink if they bring the cup. The deposit is refunded when the cup is returned. Cups are then shipped to a nearby food factory to be washed and sterilized for reuse.

The 500-ml cups are made in Belgium of a plastic that does not emit toxins when burned, and each can be reused up to 50 times. Aim Services said that after roughly one year, the cups in circulation will be processed for recycling or burned to produce thermal energy.

The firm said it began thinking of introducing returnable cups in Japan three years ago, after company officials traveled to Germany and saw a similar system in use.

“We felt we could provide our clients (stadiums) with the recycling system as part of our food and beverage concession service,” Sato said.

The recyclable cups not only help reduce garbage but also improve a venue’s image as an environment-friendly facility, he explained.

The Environment Ministry, which has been urging the use of reusable containers at stadiums and concert halls as a means of better managing resources, views the Big Eye effort as a test case to see whether more venues will follow suit.

If things go well, for example, the ministry will propose providing reusable cups during the 2005 Aichi World Exposition.

But some observers feel that just one success story will not be enough to bring about widespread use of these recyclable products.

One hurdle is the need to make the practice profitable.

To minimize losses, Aim Services is calling on beverage makers to sponsor recyclable container use by placing ads on the cups.

But with the number of cups in circulation still limited, advertising revenue cannot cover the initial cost of supplying the cups, according to the firm.

“We have to first expand the market to attract more sponsors” and lower the initial cost for the cups through mass-production, Sato said.

Another obstacle is securing the cooperation of all concessions at a venue — otherwise the system will not be effective.

Several stadium operators have contacted Aim Services and voiced interest in the reusable cup system, but even if the firm enters into contractual agreements with them, it must still win over owners of individual concessions.

The Environment Ministry, for its part, set up a committee in March to study the Big Eye model and see whether it can be expanded to other venues.

“In order for the system to take root in society, we have to make sure that it is truly environment-friendly,” said Kenji Someno, an official at the ministry’s Waste Management and Recycling Department who handles the committee’s affairs.

The panel will analyze the data to check whether the reusable cups are less of a burden on the environment than disposable cups and compile a report by March 2005.

The analysis will include calculating the total amount of energy used in connection with reusable containers, from the manufacturing to the cleaning process.

The ministry will also focus on whether the system can be profitable, Someno said, adding that another important factor for such a system to become popular is that it generate enough money for concessions to want to continue the service.

Panel member Mika Yamamoto, a Kyoto housewife who heads a nongovernmental organization that has been promoting the use of returnable containers at venues for local events since 2000, praised the Big Eye effort as a brave move. She has found that many companies are reluctant to adopt such a service because of fears that they will not pay.

“People are coming to question the (excessive) abundance of disposable things” and there is a growing demand for returnable products, Yamamoto said, noting that she hopes the movement continues in order to prompt other companies to follow suit and create a new market.

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