Taking apart flat-panel TVs near Osaka. The refrigerator machine is called "Jaws." (Jim Motavalli photo)
OSAKA, JAPAN--I am standing on a platform, looking down on men in blue jumpsuits, busily dismantling television sets. There's something satisfying about seeing appliances (including refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines and dryers) going back to their component parts. Dust to dust, as it were.
In 2001, Japan began enforcing its home appliance law, requiring manufacturer takeback, and since then the country has racked up some impressive numbers: 55% of television monitors are recycled; 50% of refrigerators; and 60% of household air conditioners.
Panasonic opened the Eco Technology Center in the Yashiro Science Park outside Osaka in 2001. "In the past several years, Japan has shifted from a society based on bulk production to one that is recycling oriented," said its director, Kazuyuki Tomita. The company calls it "treasure hunting."
One million appliances are recycled per year at the center, and that means 113 tons of iron (equivalent to 138,000 cars), 17,251 tons of copper (equivalent to 69 statutes of the Great Buddha of Nara) and 9,804 tons of aluminum (equivalent to 85 jumbo jets). Some 4,000 TVs are processed every day. The center isn't a profit center, but it gets revenue from recycling fees collected from consumers and from the sale of all that raw material.
Tours of the center are popular with schoolkids, and why not? The giant crusher that swallows refrigerators whole (and captures 75% of the raw materials in them) has earned the nickname "Jaws." Although a lot of the dismantling work is done by hand, the machines are quite cool to watch in action. Some use magnets, others centrifugal force, and others vibration. The process turns big, complex appliances into minute particles of steel, copper, aluminum and a variety of separated plastic types.
Cathode ray TV tubes are separated into panel and funnel glass, and are ultimately reborn as new televisions. A similar process for flat panel and LED TVs is a work in progress. A third of appliance weight is plastics, and the recovered material is reborn as tables and chairs, insulation, office goods and refrigerator back panels.
Modern appliances are a salad of different materials. Air conditioners, for instance, use copper pipes to connect indoor and outdoor units, and a compressor made of iron. The heat exchanger is made of aluminum plate. It all has to come apart and be separated.
Here's what TV dismantling looks like on video:
The TVs came down a conveyer, and the workers had them on their backs and opened up in seconds, freeing the CRT tube, and sending it down another belt as great hunks of circuitry went into one bin and plastic parts on another for separating. Around the corner, the plastic cases were being reduced from scraps to tiny pellets that can easily be recycled. Forklifts raced around, carrying huge sacks filled with recycled material to the loading docks.
It occurred to me to ask if the engineers who design Panasonic's appliances are aware they get dismantled at the end of life, and therefore making sure they're easy to take apart. "We invite them to come visit and see for themselves," Tomita said.
They're big on displays in Japan, and around the factory were cases filled with the products that are made from old Panasonic appliances -- everything from aluminum cans to cooking pots. We could have similar trophy cases in the U.S. with a comprehensive national appliance recycling law modeled on Japan's. The key is requiring that manufacturers take back the goods they created. It's called "the producer pays," and it has never caught on in the U.S. as it has in Europe and Asia. We're the losers, because it's plain from Panasonic's operation that companies can do this work effectively -- and massively increase recycling rates.
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