Last Friday, a group of journalists and bloggers wound up our tour of Japan with Panasonic by stopping by its PETEC (Panasonic Eco Technology Center) recycling facility in Yashiro, Hyogo Prefecture, a 90 minute drive northwest of Osaka.
Not only is PETEC a hyper-modern recycling plant, it is a research and development facility as well as an educational center. Sparkling clean, relatively silent and exuding the ideals of Japanese kaizen, PETEC is a model of how unwanted home appliances can become a valuable resource. Visitors can watch unwanted appliances find a new life as raw materials, and they also learn about the treasure that is hidden in those old home appliances. The plant, which salvages just about every material one can think of, is a model for “recycling-oriented manufacturing” that will surge in the coming years as raw materials become more expensive and difficult to source.
Over 85 percent of all materials that find their way to PETEC find another life, including rare earth metals, plastics, copper, steel and of course glass. Over 1.4 billion washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioning units and other appliances are dismantled and shredded. The equivalent of 95 jumbo jets, 95 Buddha statues and over 158,000 cars have been salvaged from aluminum, steel and copper. PETEC is also a research center for recovering rare earth metals: the company is studying new methods to extract neodymium from old air conditioner magnets, gold from printed circuit boards and rethenium and platinum from fuel cells.
But what is particularly forward thinking about PETEC is that product designers and engineers frequently visit the plant for a critical reason: they must dismantle and disassemble the products they designed in order to create new methods for improving the recycling rate of their gadgets at the end of their life-cycles. Kaizen and industrial design benefit the plants’ workers, too. As we watched the workers dismantle appliances from a high above, I noticed that despite all that crushing, dismantling, and shredding, the place was relatively quiet. Blades that slice and dice through old appliances are treated with laser-slit machining and embedded with a special resin so that barely a sound emits while they take apart the old appliances.
The Panasonic facility also gives workers with disabilities a shot at independence. Finding full time employment in Japan is difficult enough, but workers who are beset by physical disabilities and mental health challenges can find a job that pays competitive wages with Panasonic.
PETEC works in part because of Japan’s Home Appliance Recycling Law. Consumers pay a recycling fee for any appliance they purchase, retailers must collect and transport home appliances (even if they were not purchased at their stores) and manufacturers are required to accept used appliances. The system had its share of growing pains, but judging by the volume of washing machines and air conditioning units that sauntered down the conveyor belts, the law now works.
The tour is a must for any recycling expert or factory employee. Plus the time is well spent–the best part are watching live footage of hidden cameras that suck in old washing machines and shred them to pieces. For Panasonic and more companies in the coming years, waste will not be a headache, but a source of revenue.
Full disclosure: Panasonic covered my expenses while I was in Japan.
All photos courtesy of Leon Kaye.