Every PET bottle bears a triangle of arrows with the message: “Yes! to recycling. No! to littering.” But it doesn’t show where the bottles go.

The truth is, only 61 percent of used PET bottles manufactured in Japan, or 267,000 tons, were collected for recycling in fiscal 2003. The rest was either burned or buried along with other garbage, according to the Council for PET Bottle Recycling.

But the collection rate is climbing, thanks to a 1995 law mandating the recycling of containers and packaging by food and beverage makers and municipal governments. The council said Japan earns top marks for recycling compared with the U.S., which collected only 19.6 percent, and Europe, which collected 30 percent.

Despite this, the nation’s 60 recyclers are struggling to break even.

At All Waste Recycle Co. in Hasaki, Ibaraki Prefecture, where high-powered machinery smashes, sifts and rinses the bottles into white PET flakes, President Kenichi Nemoto griped that he doesn’t have enough work.

To handle the mad rush of new recyclers that have debuted recently, the government has placed a cap on the amount of used bottles each one can bid for, and AWR can get only 7,000 tons per year from cities under the national recycling scheme, below its capacity of 20,000 tons.

In addition, many cities have started selling the bottles to China, where demand runs strong. Up to 100,000 of the 437,000 tons worth of PET bottles produced in Japan are sent to China to be recycled into fiber.

The flight of PET bottles overseas has created a paradox in which recyclers, while receiving subsidies under the state-run scheme, are trying to purchase bottles from cities that are instead selling them abroad, said Masayoshi Ishiwata, a Chiba prefectural official and author of numerous books on recycling system flaws.

“The nation’s recycling laws were set up on the assumption that recycling is costly and must be controlled by the government,” Ishiwata said. “That assumption has fallen by the wayside, with China seeing Japan’s waste as resources.”

Is recycling in China good or bad? Everyone wants a say, including AWR’s Nemoto. “What if the Chinese one day say they don’t need these dirty bottles any more?” he asked. “Then we will suddenly have an overflow of used PET bottles. We need to have a sustainable recycling system in our own country.”

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