Recycling electronic waste in Japan: Better late than never

Recycling electronic waste in Japan: Better late than never

Finally one of the world's most gadget-obsessed nations is starting to take its e-waste recycling seriously
japan old electronics urban mining
Much of Japan's waste electronics ends up being pulled apart in South Asia.

Earlier this year, the Japanese government recruited virtual character Hatsune Miku in a campaign to shore up cell phone recycling rates.

The squeaky-voiced anime singer recorded a syrupy tune urging people to do their part. After all, Japanese replace their handsets so frequently that phone recycling boxes can be found in convenience stores in Tokyo.

What happens to yesterday’s gadgets? 

Urban mining

Cell phones, computers and other IT goods, as well as components like circuit boards, batteries and cathode-ray TV glass, face a mixed fate. Many are dumped, some are recycled for precious metals, and some are shipped overseas. 

japan old electronics urban miningIn the Hatsune Miku campaign, some 570,000 unwanted cell phones were collected at 1,886 stores over 100 days to the end of February, according to a government report. The successful campaign included cash prizes, so participants weren’t merely motivated by conservation or the charms of Hatsune.

So-called “urban mining” recycling plants can turn trash into treasure. The government estimates the phones yielded 22 kilograms of gold, 79 kilograms of silver, two kilograms of palladium and over five tons of copper. 

But while appliances such as TVs and air conditioners are subject to disposal laws, with recycling rates generally high, so-called e-waste -- including cell phones, computers and other electronic waste -- is another story.

In the year to April 2005, over 7 million PCs were discarded, with some 37 percent disposed or recycled, 37 percent reused within Japan, and 26 percent exported, according to Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies

<"Japan needs effective schemes for recycling apart from the Home Appliance Recycling Law," says Yuichi Moriguchi, director of the institute's Research Center for Material Cycles and Waste Management. "In particular, further collection of used PCs and batteries under the existing scheme and a system to collect cell phones and small household electronics."

Exporting to South Asia

In fact, thousands of tons of Japanese e-waste is exported to developing countries. More than 400,000 TV sets end up in the Philippines annually. Some products are resold while others are mined for metals amid soaring demand. 

Environmental regulations abroad can be lax -- an NHK TV crew once filmed workers in a sweatshop outside Manila using potassium cyanide and nitric acid to extract gold from junked Japanese circuit boards. The toxic solvent was then dumped into a pond in a residential area.

Manila may be home to dozens of such sweatshops. Greenpeace Southeast Asia says e-waste itself contains toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium as well as chemicals such as brominated flame retardants. 

Exporting toxic waste from Japan to developing countries would be a violation of the Basel Convention. U.S. toxic trade watchdog Basel Action Network (BAN) has accused Japan of seeking to export harmful garbage under the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement. 

Trash or secondhand goods?

“Japan is one of the world's most wasteful societies, producing massive amounts of excessive packaging, and post-consumer wastes such as electronic waste,” says Jim Puckett, BAN’s executive director.

“Rather than seeking to become self-sufficient in waste management as is required by the Basel Convention's landmark rules, they are looking to undermine and reverse those rules.”

Another problem is how to tell trash apart from viable used goods. Is a broken computer aboard a Manila-bound cargo container a repairable commodity, or simply junk on a long trip to the dump? 

“Japan is complying in terms of hazardous waste,” says Takeshi Yasuma of Tokyo-based NGO Citizens Against Chemicals Pollution.

“But since there’s no standard for distinguishing garbage from secondhand goods, there’s a loophole through which consumer electronics and computers that are basically trash can be exported as used goods.” 

It seems the reality of e-waste in Japan is far more complex than a Hatsune Miku song.

Where to rid yourself of e-junk

Tokyoites wishing to sell or get rid of unwanted electronics have several options. The first is a trip to Akihabara, the renowned hub of gadgets in Tokyo. Companies like Sofmap or a host of small secondhand stores in the area will be happy to help.

You can also try online forums like GaijinPot for selling. There are also various kaitori (buyback) services who will come in trucks to your apartment, look through your junk, and then give you a quote on removal. Sometimes these can even be the local guy in a truck with a loudspeaker randomly driving around. These will sometimes pay you, sometimes take your waste for free, or sometimes charge you for taking.

Mobile phone makers will take back their own old models from you, especially if you upgrade, while electronic sales giants like BIC Camera will accept TVs and other home appliances under the recycling law, and ship them to manufacturers for recycling.


Author and journalist Tim Hornyak has been covering Japanese culture and technology for over a decade, and has traveled throughout the archipelago.

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