Energy Diet

Where All That Recycled Plastic Goes

PET bottles

I consume three of these 520-ml 'i-Lohas' each week. Japan uses only 12 grams of PET for one bottle. Still, I consume 1.8 kilograms of PET each year.

I always thought our city’s waste collection system was troublesome, and tried to find out why. Then I found a quirky situation regarding our national standard.

As I mentioned earlier, the city we live in, Kamakura, has a quite rigorous garbage collection system: With 15 different categories for trash, it’s one of the strictest systems in Japan. We have been living here for years and have grown accustomed to it. However, I have been wondering whether it is actually effective for the environment. So I recently visited Kamakura’s city office and asked about some details.

Japan’s households produce 35 million tons of garbage every year. Sixty percent of household garbage is containers and wrapping.

Plastics are subject to recycling, and PET bottles are a critical item here. Generally, in Japan, PET bottles are separately collected from other plastic materials. Of all municipalities, 99.1% have set up separate collections for PET and other plastic. But as I found from my research, there’s a difference in how they process those recyclables.

By law, municipalities must provide a record of where materials go after collection. An agency called JCPRA, formed by government and concerned industries, is charged with this tracking. It deals with glass bottles, paper containers and wrapping, plastic containers and wrapping and PET bottles, as these must be recycled, by law. Steel and aluminum cans, drink cartons and cardboards are traded on an independent market.

Municipalities bring collected plastics to JCPRA, which then chooses the processing factory. The factory can then sell the processed materials to vendors of recycled products. Of the total materials sold, PET plastic exceeds 30 percent of the volume, but fewer than 10 municipalities funnel these PET collections to dedicated PET recyclers.

And things get even fuzzier than that. In 2009, 564,000 tons of PET materials were sold in Japan, but only 437,000 tons were routed by municipalities to JCPRA and back to beverage manufacturers. That leaves 127,000 tons, or 22.5 percent of the sales, going to foreign buyers whose recycling processes are actually unknown. Municipalities, which see this as a source of revenue, are motivated to sell to higher bidders, which may not guarantee that the material is recycled properly. This is a bad situation created by local governments.

Almost of all the 437,000 tons collected PET is processed by JCPRA, which is better than unregulated sales, but even these PET materials won’t necessarily be turned into PET products.

Petrefinetechnology Co. is the only company that refines PET bottles into new PET bottles. Municipalities must specify this company to ensure PET bottle-to-PET-bottle processing. My city, Kamakura is one of fewer than 10 cities that adhere the concept that PET should be recycled into PET bottles.

Huge amounts of PET bottles are consumed every day. Realistically, for my way of life, I cannot ban bottled water completely. What citizens should do is to watch how our disposal is dealt with. That depends on local government policy, which we can influence.

I realized that all the trouble of separating out our garbage is worth it.


  1. clipton
    February 23, 2011, 9:33 am

    As you mention, it is important to closely follow how your disposal is dealt with. It is commendable that you are doing so. Also, I recognize that you will not completely ween your lifestyle of bottled water. The best thing you can do is reduce bottled water consumption as much as possible. Maybe keep track of how much you consume per month.

  2. Krisalyn
    April 8, 2011, 2:01 pm

    That’s way more clever than I was expecting. Thanks!