The throwaway mentality remains strongly entrenched here — witness the mountains of refuse in the nation’s parks and other favored sites for cherry-blossom viewing as the season reaches its peak. To anyone viewing the discarded cans, bottles and paper and plastic packaging, active recycling may seem like a distant dream, a goal that the Japanese public is far from ready to embrace. And yet April 1 brought the full implementation of the Container and Package Recycling Law that was first introduced in 1997. Now, along with plastic and glass bottles, paper cartons and wrapping materials and plastic containers and packaging are also classified as recyclable.
Much will be required before the law can even partly succeed in relieving Japan’s waste-disposal nightmare. Responsibility for collecting the recyclable items separately from other waste falls to local governments, or individual wards in the case of Tokyo, but a recent Health and Welfare Ministry survey discovered that few municipalities are prepared to begin doing so. For example, the ministry anticipated that 803 cities, towns and villages would start separately collecting paper containers for recycling this month, but only 112 will. The expected annual total of 87,000 tons of waste paper to be recycled thus has been slashed to 18,000 tons.
The situation is even worse with plastic containers. Only 493 local governments, instead of the 1,348 envisaged in the original plan, have started collecting such items separately. The law contains a loophole that allows municipalities to determine for themselves if they are ready to embark on separate collections, and many say their reason for postponement is the continuing public confusion about what is recyclable and how waste should be separated. The confusion does exist, but the failure of many local governments to provide adequate guidance is partly to blame.
Another cause is uncertainty about how much individuals as well as society will benefit from cooperating in recycling, and whether doing so dictates a drastic change in lifestyle. Disarray among the coalition partners may delay Diet action on the bill drafted by the Environment Agency for submission by the central government to create a basic recycling law, originally scheduled for this year. The law would require manufacturers to reduce waste and make meaningful efforts at recycling from the initial stages of product design.
Various government ministries are still planning to introduce related bills in the current Diet session. Prominent among them is one from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister that would require food producers, supermarkets and restaurants to convert food wastes into items such as fertilizer and livestock feed, with punitive provisions for violators. Others include a proposal from the Construction Ministry for recycling building materials and one for more stringent provisions in a revised Wastes Disposal Law prepared by the Health and Welfare Ministry.
Manufacturers in the electronics and electric-appliance industries are already looking forward with some trepidation to the introduction next year of a law requiring them to recycle used products. Its success remains in question since how much of the cost will be borne by consumers is still undetermined, although stores can be expected to levy a charge for collecting used appliances and transporting them to storage areas. Perhaps the scattershot approach to recycling is not surprising in a society where the concept remains new and where the economic slowdown and subsequent tightening of consumer purse strings have done nothing to reduce the volume of waste.
The steps proposed or already scheduled all have value if supported by adequate, efficient planning and properly promoted to consumers who often seem cynical and unconcerned. Good intentions are not enough, as proved with the ubiquitous PET bottles in which some 30 percent of the nation’s soft drinks are marketed. The system to recycle them is threatened by collapse from the sheer number collected, too many for recycling centers to handle. Some 5,000 tons, or 6 percent of the total collected last year, will not be recycled.
Necessity still leads to inventiveness, however. Some major textile makers are successfully producing long-wearing fabric for use in business uniforms from fibers made from discarded PET bottles. That is recycling of a most significant kind and deserves encouragement. With waste-disposal areas at or near maximum capacity and disposal facilities posing a serious pollution threat, recycling has to mean not simply reusing old products, but finding practical, economical new uses for them.
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