As a child, Noriko Ishizaka was ashamed of her father’s company — a waste disposal firm with towering smoke stacks overlooking a small town in Saitama Prefecture.

“People would call him ‘the garbage collector’ … and I wasn’t proud of that,” she recalled.

But Ishizaka Sangyo Co., once labeled an air polluter by Saitama residents, is now one of the nation’s leading recycling companies and recycles an average of 95 percent of the waste it is asked to process.

To achieve its current success, however, the company, now led by his 45-year-old daughter, first had to weather the public relations nightmare caused by the nationwide campaign against dioxin emissions in the late 1990s.

Ishizaka Sangyo was established in Tokyo by Yoshio Ishizaka in 1967 amid high demand for disposal services from the red-hot construction sector. During the bubble economy, he moved the company to the town of Miyoshi, in Saitama Prefecture, where his daughter joined as an employee in 1992 at the age of 20.

“At that time, incineration was the standard method used by all companies in the industry, as Japan didn’t have space to bury its waste,” Ishizaka said in a recent interview.

But the process gradually triggered complaints about emissions, raising serious health concerns.

Despite Yoshio Ishizaka’s decision in 1997 to make his company the first in Japan to install machines to filter out cancerous dioxin, a by-product of waste incineration, local outrage only grew after a dioxin emissions scare hit Osaka in 1998.

It then exploded in 1999 after TV Asahi spuriously reported that excessive levels of the highly toxic carcinogen had been found on vegetables grown in Tokorozawa. This kicked off a wave of incinerator scrutiny.

Residents started blaming their waste disposal companies, including Ishizaka Sangyo in Miyoshi, which borders Tokorozawa, Kawagoe and Sayama.

Ishizaka recalled residents yelling “Get out of here!”

Her father had already been separating wooden waste from concrete and was recycling all of the items to minimize combustibles. He also slashed the number of incinerators to seven from 64 in 1998.

But that wasn’t enough to ensure the company’s survival amid the dioxin scare.

“When I asked my dad what he imagined the future of the company to be, he said he wanted to end incineration and recycle the waste,” Ishizaka said. “I was moved.”

Ishizaka, who became president on a trial basis at the age of 30, believed drastic change was called for. At the time, her father gave her a year to institute reforms but held on to his title as company representative with decision-making power.

The first thing she did was ditch the environmentally friendly incinerator that cost the firm ¥1.5 billion and focus on recycling. Within a year, she had acquired the municipal government’s approval to rebuild Ishizaka Sangyo into a closed-loop recycling facility that wouldn’t churn out pollutants.

Ishizaka has since invested some ¥4 billion in machinery and technology designed to break down refuse into small pieces that can be ground down and recycled without the use of water or incineration. The resulting products are then used in a variety of ways, including as soil or construction material.

Aiming to become a pioneer in the industry, Ishizaka Sangyo adopted three integrated waste management systems qualified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to improve resource efficiency, cut costs and reduce waste.

“It used to be dirty and had a bad reputation,” Ishizaka said of the company, which had a shed and incinerators with high chimneys towering over the premises.

“I did my best to change it into something my kids could be proud of,” the mother of two said.

But the reforms were also met by strong opposition from recalcitrant employees.

Within six months, about 30 of the 65 employees quit the predominantly male company over Ishizaka’s changes, which included closing rest areas where workers goofed off. Only two employees from the pre-reform era remain.

Ishizaka Sangyo now has about 175 employees, about 40 of whom are women. Half the board is composed of women, and the average age at the company is now around 35, down from about 55.

Ishizaka’s efforts helped her win the confidence of her father, who agreed to hand over his title as company representative. It later became the first company in Japan to be granted seven internationally recognized certifications for high-quality management in the industry.

For the business year ended last August, Ishizaka Sangyo raked in about ¥500 million in profit on sales of about ¥4.9 billion.

Winning over the residents of Miyoshi was also one of the keys to success. Apart from the shift to recycling, the company has converted the majority of its 18-hectare premises into a park. It also runs a farm where compost generated in the recycling process is used. Rare and threatened species, including Japanese honeybees, are cultivated there.

Tours are conducted to demonstrate the firm’s technology and educate the public about waste management. More than 30,000 people including students, foreign visitors and politicians, including former Environment Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, have visited the site.

The reforms paid off. In 2012, Ishizaka Sangyo became Japan’s second business to be granted the highest rank under the Japan Habitat Evaluation and Certification Program, which rewards organizations that protect the environment and the ecosystem.

The company was also nominated in 2013 to receive the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s award for hospitality.

A year later, Ishizaka received the science and education minister’s award for her efforts to improve waste disposal and educate the public about its impact on society.

Ishizaka wants to change the waste industry’s dingy image into one of sustainability, where waste can be used to supply energy. She is currently collaborating with researchers to find new techniques to improve waste management practices.

“In 100 years, the earth would see an overflow of trash,” Ishizaka said. “We should aim for a society that generates as little waste as possible.”

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appear on the second Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

Key events in Noriko Ishizaka’s life

1992 — Joins her father’s waste management company Ishizaka Sangyo Co.

1999 — Ishizaka Sangyo is lambasted by the community about its dioxin-spewing incinerators. The backlash is fueled by media reports about rampant dioxin pollution in Osaka and Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture.

2002 — Joins her father as second president of Ishizaka Sangyo and initiates major reforms.

2003 — Ishizaka Sangyo becomes the first in the industry to be granted three internationally recognized certifications for high-quality management and receives approval from the town to rebuild the plant.

2008 — Launches study tours to educate the public about environmental issues.

2012 — Becomes Japan’s second business to be granted the highest ranking in the Japan Habitat Evaluation and Certification Program.

2013 — Ishizaka Sangyo nominated for Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s hospitality award. Ishizaka officially becomes president. Diplomatic delegation from 10 Latin American and Caribbean states visits plant.

2014 — Ishizaka Sangyo visited by Environment Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and receives science and education minister’s award.

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