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The city of Kitakyushu is drawing attention nationwide for an environmental protection campaign it began in the 1990s.

“I may be the only mayor who became famous by collecting waste and creating an industry,” says former Mayor Koichi Sueyoshi, 80.

He was speaking at a plant of Nishi-Nippon PET-Bottle Recycle Co. (NPR), where old plastic bottles were piled up high.

NPR’s facility in Kitakyushu was the first recycling plant for food containers, packaging materials, automobile parts and home appliances built in the city’s “Eco Town” area.

Located on 2,000 hectares of landfill in Wakamatsu Ward, it was founded in 1997 with investment from the Kitakyushu Municipal Government and private companies, including the predecessor of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp.

Japan harnessed the joint efforts of government, private enterprise and local residents to overcome environmental problems in the 1960s. But in the 1990s, new types of urban environmental destruction arose in which citizens were both victims and the cause — air pollution caused by car exhaust, global warming and an increase in household waste.

Manufacturers continued to market products for mass consumption without considering what would happen when they were thrown away.

“I intuitively thought that manufacturers should reconsider their operations and talked about it with my colleagues,” said Junichi Kawasaki, 66, a retired employee of Nippon Steel Corp., which renamed itself after merging with Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd. Kawasaki played a central role in the initial phase of NPR’s operations.

Nippon Steel, like other Japanese steel mills, was struggling at the time to address “three excesses” — in workforce, land and capacity.

In 1997, when Sueyoshi was mayor of Kitakyushu, the city was chosen as Japan’s first Eco Town under the central government’s Eco Town Project aimed at recycling and converting all kinds of waste into useful materials.

Kitakyushu officials were wondering how to utilize landfills made of industrial and other waste. The city and landowners, such as Nippon Steel, set up a study panel that in 1992 proposed promoting environmental education and basic studies, technological and empirical researches and commercialization of research results.

Sueyoshi exercised leadership in creating an environmental industry, based on accumulated anti-pollution technologies, as a symbol of the city, said Toshifumi Yada, 73, who was then a professor at Kyushu University and chairman of the panel.

The city government looked at combining two negative heritages — pollution and idle land — to create the industry.

A new law requiring food makers to recycle plastic packaging materials was enacted in 1995. Reflecting increased public interest in environmental issues, the legislation prompted Nippon Steel to join the city-led movement.

“It was a bolt out of the blue because I was told to establish a company and begin operating a plant within a year,” NPR President Kimiharu Kanakogi, 64, said, recalling an order he received from his superior at Nippon Steel.

NPR, which began operating in 1998, needed more plastic bottles in addition to those collected by the Kitakyushu Municipal Government to operate profitably. Kanakogi and city officials therefore visited nearly half of the local governments in Kyushu to ask for cooperation.

Local officials pledged to cooperate because of Nippon Steel’s involvement, Kanakogi said in reference to the sense of attachment people in Kyushu feel toward the steel maker’s Yahata Steel Works in Kitakyushu, which began operating in 1901.

“We make (recycled) plastic bottles into materials for different products and put them on the market,” Kanakogi said. “We improved the quality of them, considering recycling as the same as manufacturing. It’s not just disposal of waste.”

The Eco Town has become a symbol of Kitakyushu as it tries to evolve from a polluted industrial city into an environmentally friendly one.

“We have proved and become confident that the environment can be a profitable business,” said current Mayor Kenji Kitahashi, citing energy and water as examples of environmental business sources.

But Kanakogi is not optimistic about the future of NPR due to the increasing difficulty of collecting enough plastic bottles.

About half of the PET bottles collected by municipalities and private companies end up in China because Chinese processors are playing higher prices.

A “thorough domestic recycling system,” including legal restrictions on exports of collected pet bottles, should be created for stable and effective use of recycling facilities in Japan, Kanakogi said.

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