The circular economy: big in Japan
When it comes to the ways in which stuff is made, consumed, and disposed of, there’s a lot the UK could learn from Japan.
Japanese recycling rates are extraordinary: 98 per cent for metals for example and, in 2007, just five per cent of Japan’s waste ended up in a hole in the ground, compared with 48 per cent for the UK in 2008. Japan’s appliance recycling laws ensure the great majority of electrical and electronic products are recycled, compared with 30-40 per cent here. Of these appliances, 74-89 per cent of the materials they contain are recovered. Perhaps more significantly, many of these materials go back into the manufacture of the same type of products from which they were reclaimed . This is the ‘closed-loop’ holy grail of recycling essential for a truly circular economy.
So how has Japan managed it and can we do it too?
How it works over there
Collaboration is at the heart of the Japanese system. The public plays a part by separating out recyclables, paying recycling fees directly and holding companies to account when necessary. Manufacturers do their bit by using more recycled materials, and making longer lasting products that are easier to repair and recycle. The system has two key features:
- Consumer-friendly collection: The system for collecting old appliances for recycling is so comprehensive and easy to use it’s harder not to recycle them. Old appliances are collected by retailers either in store or when delivering a new appliance. For old IT equipment, you can request that the original manufacturer collect it from your doorstep, or you can take it to any Post Office and have it sent back to them. This is standard across Japan, making it well understood and widely used.
- Recycling infrastructure is co-owned: The law requires consortia of manufacturers to run disassembly plants, ensuring they directly benefit from recovering materials and parts. Because recovery is a legal requirement, companies invest for the long term in recycling infrastructure. And because they own both manufacturing and recovery facilities, companies send product designers to disassembly factories to experience the frustrations of taking apart a poorly designed product. Some companies even put prototypes through the disassembly process to make sure they’re easy to recover.
This system doesn’t just work well, it’s also big business: Japan’s reuse and recycling economy was worth £163 billion in 2007 (7.6% of GDP) and employed 650,000 people.
Could it work over here?
There are more similarities between Japan and the UK than you might think. We’re both densely populated islands with high-tech manufacturing industries that need a reliable (and ideally reliably priced) supply of resources. We’ve also both decided that landfill is not a long term option and we’re both already paying to have appliances recycled. In fact, a very rough calculation suggests that we already pay as much as the Japanese do for appliance and electronics recycling and reuse, despite their much higher recycling rates, so cost shouldn’t be a barrier.
How do we go from ‘big in Japan’ to big over here? The lesson is clear: make it easy for people and encourage supply chain collaboration and we might find we can be more like the Japanese than we thought.
 The 2006 impact assessment for the WEEE directive (the policy that’s currently driving WEEE recycling) reckoned that recycling and re-using electronics will cost around £170.5 million in 2013. Combining this with the 2011 census estimate of 23.4 million households gives a cost per household of £7.28. In Japan, it costs roughly £18.50 to dispose of a television, £28 a fridge, and £17 a washing machine, equal to £63.50 for all three. Comparing the costs per household in the UK with the costs per appliance in Japan, these costs are about the same if a household goes through a set of appliances (TV, fridge and washing machine) every 8-9 years. However, this comparison doesn’t include the costs of landfilling all the appliances that aren’t recycled, which for UK households is paid through council tax. So the total costs of our system might well be higher.