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Recycling: Inside Panasonic’s ‘Eco Technology Center’

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Panasonic’s “Eco Technology Center” sits in a little town outside of Osaka, Japan and is unique in that it’s one of the only recycling centers that has an on-site research and development lab and allows public tours. Check out the above video to see more.

In Japan, the Home Appliance Recycling Law (HARL) was passed in 1998 and then fully enforced by 2001. The law calls for end-of-life home appliances to be recycled through the cooperation of consumers, retailers, and manufacturers with the target goal of over 50% of the materials in various home appliances to be used to make new appliances. There are four main categories: CRT televisions and monitors, electric refrigerators and freezers, electric washing machines, and household air conditioners.

We got a chance to sit down with the president of the Eco Technology Center, Kazuyuki Tomita, and peppered him with questions about what they do with the stuff that can’t be recycled, a refrigerator-eating machine named “Jaws”, and all of the weird and wonderful things that they find in old, forgotten appliances.

What are some of the main elements that can’t be recycled?

Some of the materials we can’t recycle right now is insulation resin foam and some spongy material used in air conditioners. Also, some resin mixed with metal – we used to burn everything but with new technology, we’ll soon be able to recycle resins mixed with metals.

So where will those materials go?

There are two ways. One is that we give it to a special company that specializes in disposing harmful materials. The second is that we burn them and, after burnt we put it back into the plant. So there are two ways.

Do you look over the appliances that come in, just in case they’re still working?

We have to recycle the products that we receive here because consumers give their end-of-use products to the retailers for the purpose of recycling. The retailers could reuse them at their retail shops, not here. Under the law, it is prohibited to reuse the products we receive here. We do find products which can be used, of course.

What kinds of forgotten stuff do you find in old products?

Money! When we find money in a refrigerator, of course we give it to the police – report it! Not “give” (laughter), we report it.

Do the consumers have to leave identifying information with their appliances so that if you found something illegal, for instance, you could find them?

When we receive the product, it has a ticket with a name. At that time, if we find something inside, we can identify the person. But when we start the recycling process, we take the label off so we don’t know who had this product. We can’t identify this person. So any substantial money we find, we use that ticket to report the money to the police. We try to give back the money through the police.

What’s the most money you’ve found? How often do you find money?

The highest amount was 400,000 Japanese Yen, which is about $4,000. We find money all the time when we take apart washing machines. We find about 20-30 coins per day, so you should check your washing machine if you’re ever short on money!

Also, Japanese refrigerators have a lot of compartments in them, so when we take them apart, sometimes we find that people have hidden money in there. Do you have any money hidden in your fridge?

Are the machines here running 24 hours a day?

No. It varies by product, but right now in the summer, we have two shifts. There are people here between 7:00AM and 3:00AM, depending on the shift, but not 24 hours.

Whose idea was it to call that refrigerator-eating machine “Jaws”?

(Laughter) The former president of this technology center wanted to make an image of a machine that ate refrigerators, so they came up with Jaws. We receive a lot of children here, so it is very important that we have these kinds of things so that they can relate. Do you have any other suggestions (Laughter) that we could use?

You can read more about the Eco Technology Center by following this link.

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