Accessibility links

'Recycling' a Japanese Steel Town - 2002-02-22

Kitakyushu in Japan's Fukuoka Prefecture was once one of the nation's most polluted cities, but it is remaking itself into a sophisticated recycling center. Officials hope the recycling business also helps revive the troubled local economy.

Thirty years ago, Kitakyushu, 970 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, was a thriving town in Japan's so-called rust belt. It was one of the country's largest steel producers, with the local Nippon Steel plant employing 43,000 people.

But along with countless slabs of red-hot steel, the factory produced a thick, brown haze that blanketed the city.

Today, Kitakyushu's skies are clear, but the once-busy Nippon Steel factory employs just 4,000 people. Japan's steel sector, along with other heavy industries, has fallen victim to an ailing national economy and cheaper overseas production costs.

Kitakyushu now has embarked on an aggressive redevelopment plan to create jobs and revive its economy.

It is pinning some of its hopes on a sprawling industrial complex where everything from cars and air conditioners to fluorescent light tubes are not built, but are broken down and recycled.

Chikako Oba a spokeswoman for the complex, called Eco-Town, explains that most of the financing for the multi-million dollar project comes from Nippon Steel and other companies, as well as government funds.

"I think the recycling industry profits will increase as more environmental laws are enacted," she said. "Our corporate sponsors understand this."

Eco-Town, which was built in 1997 on 2,000 hectares of reclaimed land, consists of a series of boxy, multi-story buildings. In each, workers are using the latest technology to recycle old goods.

In one, discarded refrigerators are disassembled, hazardous chemicals removed, and then the appliances are broken down into tiny parts. The material is sorted into glass, steel and plastic, and some of it is reused to manufacture other items.

Downstairs, workers break down television sets into pieces of plastic and glass, which is set aside for future industrial use. The process takes just 15 minutes for each set.

Narinobu Okawa, the president of the electrical recycling plant, worked for decades making television sets. He says that in the past, he tried to build the best possible products. Now, he thinks companies should make appliances that are easy to recycle.

"Before, Japan was a leader in mass production, but now we need to become a recycling society because resources are limited and the environment is in trouble," he said.

Mr. Okawa now pushes Japanese electronics companies to make more recyclable goods.

At Eco-Town plants, thousands of plastic bottles are broken down every day. The resin produced is used to create textiles, egg cartons and other goods.

Scrap iron and other materials are salvaged from old cars. High quality parts from old office equipment such as fax machines are recovered as well.

There is research under way to turn medical waste into fuel and other materials. Eco-town researchers also work to determine the best use of old concrete and glass. In addition, scientists are experimenting with making animal feed from kitchen waste and working recycling chemical compounds such as polystyrene.

At this point, Eco-Town recycles mostly local waste and is not yet a profitable venture. But officials in Kitakyushu are optimistic that the development of new environmental technologies will become a cornerstone of the former steel town's development.