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The Zero-Emissions Challenge

9_cutting_edge_01.gif Amid growing worldwide concern over global environmental issues, more companies are aiming to eliminate waste completely from their production plants. To achieve "zero emissions," companies are stepping up their recycling efforts, but is recycling enough? This article sheds light on this issue by looking at how companies in Aichi Prefecture are rising to meet this challenge.

The 1-percent wall

Disposing of harmful CFCs

Tie-ups for recycling

The 1-percent wall

The Nagoya Plant of Kirin Brewery Co., Ltd. in the town of Shinkawa, some 5 kilometers northwest of central Nagoya, achieved zero emissions on December 1, 1997, and has been waste-free since.

"The raw materials used for brewing beer are mainly barley and other natural ingredients, so the industry lends itself to recycling," concedes Masahiro Sakamoto, the plant's deputy general manager and Environmental Section manager. "Beer dregs, which account for more than 70 percent of what the plant produces, are used as livestock feed, and the yeast is recycled as raw material for pharmaceuticals. What proved most difficult to recycle was the so-called general waste, such as the plastic and styrofoam used as packaging, fluorescent light bulbs, cigarette boxes, and leftover food. They contained an assortment of materials, and we couldn't find a recycler to take them off of our hands. We had succeeded in recycling 99 percent of the byproducts from the plant. It was that last 1 percent that was keeping us from realizing zero emissions."

After considering a number of options to clear the "1% wall," Sakamoto decided to implement a system of thoroughgoing separation, dividing the waste collected from the plant into 18 categories: dust from the floor, colored glass bottles, clear glass bottles, rubber, steel cans, aluminum cans, combustible materials, plastics, candy wrappers, cords, and foil. Plastics were further divided into eight sub-categories. "As a result," says Sakamoto, "we were able to funnel everything into recycling. We didn't need to take anything out from our plant as trash anymore."

The separation at Kirin's Nagoya Plant was so thorough that fluorescent bulbs, for example, were divided into their glass and metal components, and cigarette packaging was sorted into plastic film, foil, and paper. "Of course, if the recyclers we hand our materials to are not reputable and law abiding, all this effort would come to nothing," explains Sakamoto. "I think that the successful achievement of zero emissions hinges to a great extent on general attitudes toward recycling in the prefecture."

Disposing of harmful CFCs

Denso Corp. is an automobile parts manufacturer headquartered in the city of Kariya. One of Denso's major products--an item that few if any cars in Japan today are without these days-- is the air conditioner.

At one time, air-conditioning devices used a type of chlorofluorocarbon known as CFC12--a major culprit in the destruction of the ozone layer. Use of CFC12 in the manufacture of new automobiles was abolished by 1994. Today, the environmentally-safe perfluorocarbon HCF134a is used in its place. But, "That didn't solve the problem," explains Yoshio Iwai, general project manager of Denso's Safety Health and Environment Department. "Even though CFC12 isn't being used any more, older cars containing it are still running. And even HCF134a has recently been found to be a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. These gases find their way into the atmosphere when vehicles are disposed of or repaired. That's where our coolant recycler can play a big role."

Denso's recycler enables used CFC12 brought into a plant to be disposed of properly and HCF134a to be removed temporarily from car air conditioners during repair and then reinserted. Iwai continues: "About 3.8 million vehicles are expected to be junked in 1998, and our recycler will likely extract the harmful gases from just a quarter of the total. But at least we've initiated an important process, and we're hoping that the recycler will come to be used on a nationwide basis."

About 75% of the automobile by weight is currently recycled. The immediate concern for the automobile industry is raising this rate. Fumitake Kojima, project general manager for Toyota Motor Corp.'s Environmental Affairs Division, sees the greatest challenge in boosting the recycling ratio of resins: "Resins are used for all sorts of purposes because of their light weight, but for safety reasons very sturdy types are used that tend to be difficult to recycle. In Japan, discarded automobiles account for approximately 800,000 tons of waste each year, with resins accounting for more than 30 percent of the total."

Toyota considered this ample reason to develop a new, easier-to-recycle resin that would allow new bumpers, for example, to be made out of old ones. The cars being produced today, thus, are about 85% recyclable, and the next target is to raise the rate to 95%. Kojima says that in the future, it might be possible to achieve a 100% recycling rate, which would essentially mean being able to make a completely new car from a used one.

Tie-ups for recycling

One pending issue is finding companies to actually use the recycled materials. There has been more than a few instances of firms being forced to throw away recycled materials when they were unable to find any buyers. To eliminate such a necessity, Nippon Steel Corp.'s Nagoya Works and Nagoya Esment Co., Ltd., both located in the city of Tokai, have forged a much-publicized recycling partnership.

A blast furnace at Nippon Steel's Nagoya Works.

Under this arrangement, Nagoya Esment purchases the impurities, or slug, generated during steel production at the Nagoya Works. After processing, the slug (about 300 kilograms of which is generated for each ton of steel produced) is sold as a raw material for making cement. The two partners have endeavored to minimize the burden on the other; Nippon Steel treats its slug to make it easy for Nagoya Esment to process, and Nagoya Esment has a processing plant on the steelworks' grounds to eliminate shipping needs. The result has been a recycling ratio of 99% for the Nagoya Works' slug.

Thanks to such tie-ups, "Approximately 65 percent of all materials generated through industrial activity in Aichi Prefecture today are recycled," says Kaneo Sawaki of the Waste Management Division of the Aichi Prefecture Department of the Environment. "To hike this figure, though, additional tie-ups are needed. Information about the kind of materials a given company uses must be made available more widely to allow firms to find suitable recycling partners. In that sense, public disclosures of corporate information will become crucial." To foster environmental conservation, Aichi has established a guideline for citizens, corporations, and governments called Aichi Agenda 21. The agenda attaches great importance to recycling and identifies fuller corporate disclosures as a key factor. Aichi also publishes a recycling newsletter for smaller firms, which tend to have fewer sources of information, so they can locate potential partners. "Our ultimate goal, of course," says Sawaki, "is zero emissions for all manufacturing plants in Aichi."

Although type of industry and circumstances vary from one company to the next, recycling seems at this point to be the best way of meeting the challenge of zero emissions.

(Masahiro Ota)