Though Japan produces more plastic per capita than China and the rest of Asia combined, it offsets this with its strict plastic collection and recycling rules. Now the government and private sector are investing in innovative, more sustainable recycling methods that could transform the way food and beverages are packaged for good. We speak with speak with Eiichi Furusawa, President of Kyoei Industry, about how his company is addressing the problem.
According to the UN Environmental Agency, more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s. About 60% of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or in the natural environment. If the current trend continues, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050. Could you give us an overview of the situation regarding the impact of plastics on the environment?
After the Second World War, Japan enjoyed a period of rapid economic growth. Soon after, the oil crisis sparked off, oil prices rocketed and the country realized that it needed to control, or even decrease, its overall energy consumption. For this reason, both private and public sectors came out with new ideas to pursue this objective through innovation, in the automotive sector regarding fuel consumption or the city council effort to reduce the use of electricity in Ginza district (in Tokyo) for example.
This trend was growing when I was in my twenties. This was the time when I realized how great it would be to use recycled plastic as an energy source. At this time, the oil crisis was affecting the world and Japan had no natural resources. This idea seemed very attractive to me but soon after, the crisis was solved and the prices of oil went back to normal. The interest of all parties for my idea soon faded out but I kept thinking that it would be a great contribution to the environment if we were able to create something out of all the plastic we used.
At this time, Japan was one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with companies such as Sony or Panasonic taking a great lead in the manufacture of electronic devices and VHS, which production requires an intense use of plastic. At this time, these companies were not interested in recycling because they thought it would disclaim their fabrication secret. Instead, they would burn or bury the wastes and I thought it was very damageable. I then decided to start this company in 1985 with a very small bit of capital with the purpose of recycling bottles to bottles. Right from the beginning, I was looking for people to invest in the company. We had to create an ecological consideration in the whole society that did not exist at this time. This is why we first created multiple garbage cans that allowed waste separation and collection. We also had to educate people about the interest and benefits of waste recycling. This came as the foundation of the company.
In the 1980s and with the appreciation of the yen, many Japanese companies decided to move their production overseas and there appeared a problem that we called “manufacturing vacuum” spreading around Japan. In 1982, Japan introduced the PET bottles in the market while at the same time, VHS was declining tremendously. However, PET bottles manufacturing process used the same polyester material that VHS did. I have always known that our consumption of plastics would keep increasing over time and the only solution to help this situation was to find a way to recycle plastic, to use plastic as an energy source and to produce plastic out of cleaner resources than oil. This need is even more urgent today. We are only a small company and we cannot take the whole responsibility on ourselves. However, we do want to contribute to the importance of a cleaner environment and spread the system of recycling PET bottles, because this product is 100% recyclable.
Could you please highlight the key milestones of your company?
We started our recycling activity in 1988 and we built our pilot plant in 1994. In 1997, Japan implemented a very strict regulation to force the Japanese corporations to recycle. This decision opened a clear future for our firm and we decided to build our Tochigi factory in 2001. The technology that allows us to complete the bottles-to-bottles recycling process was achieved in 2006. However, we needed to address the consumers’ concerns about the safety of using recycled PET bottles and to convince the beverage companies of the benefits it could provide. For these reasons, it took about 5 years until this technology was completely approved by all parties, five years during which the situation was financially challenging for us. Fortunately, things became much better from 2011, when Suntory Group understood the amount of CO2 that our technology could cut and started using our products. It was definitely a tipping point for us. We are now aiming for a zero-CO2-emission objective.
Since its establishment in 1985, KYOEI has greatly contributed to saving the planet by promoting a “circular economy” (sell, collect, recycle, sell). By developing MR-PET solution, 100% recycled PET resin with the same qualities as the PET made from crude oil, KYOEI is able to save 63% of CO2 emission for every recycled bottle. Could you explain more about this solution and its positive impact on the environment?
Standard recycling processes start by “pelletizing”, reducing the waste into pellets and then creating the materials for a new bottle. However, we have created a system where we can skip this first step in order to directly reduce the materials into flakes after cleaning up the collected PET bottles thanks to a chemical process. Through several heat treatments, we turn the flakes into a crystallized resin and transform the resin into a “preformed” material. This material is then used to make a new PET bottle.
Traditional bottle-to-bottle recycling processes contain four different stages whereas our process only has three, which allows manufacturing cost reductions as well as transportation savings, thus reducing the CO2 emission by another 25%. We are hoping to make this process a global standard.
The Kyoto protocol required all country members to reduce CO2 emissions by 15%, which the USA and China disagreed with. As a result, an agreement could not be reached, because for most countries, economic growth goes along CO2 emissions. In our system, the more we produce, the more CO2 emissions we are able to cut. For each kilogram of plastic recycled, we are able to cut CO2 emissions by one kilogram. Producing a new PET bottle requires the use of 1.5 kilogram CO2 including the impact of logistics and transportation. Even if we had to transport our recycled PET bottles all the way to Hokkaido or Okinawa, we would still be able to reduce CO2 emissions compared to the process of making new ones.
In Japan, most PET bottles are collected and recycled after use. According to The Council for PET Bottle Recycling, Japan’s recycling rate was 84.8% in fiscal 2017. Europe in comparison recycled 41.8% of plastic bottles and the U.S. 20.9%. What can a company like yours teach the world in regards to plastic recycling?
For a long time, many countries including Japan fooled themselves and pretended to be reducing their amount of waste by sending them away to China. However, China has now blocked those imports and the countries need to find alternative solutions, especially those with relatively small lands such as Japan. To be honest, even the Japanese government was fine sending its waste to China. Until 2017, they considered waste disposal as a trade amongst others. Our company has always thought differently and wanted to consider another solution that could be more ecological, economical and sustainable. Since China closed its borders to the importation of waste, Japan has been forced to deal with its garbage and has praised the type of solutions that we have been promoting for a long time. In the last three to four years, they have ironically thanked us a lot and they proudly take our example at international summits.
With an increasing adoption by major players in the industry such as Suntory Group and Kirin Beverage Company, how do you estimate the impact of your solutions today?
For the past 30 years, we have really specialized in recycling PET bottles, but our solution goes against most of the recycling standards in the world that often mix recycled and virgin materials in their process. The solution I am promoting uses almost exclusively recycled materials. One of our challenges has been to meet different safety standards and to be 100% sure about our products. If any problem occurs, it would create doubts and suspicions in the society and we could consider that our business is over.
Our first and foremost mission is to make sure that 100% of the impurities are removed from the old bottle before the process starts. This is what we do through the peeling process and then through pressuring and heat treatments. Consistence in our process is the most important asset. The consumers should know that all our major customers in the beverage industry continuously oversee our work and check the quality of our production. These corporations were also impacted by the decision from China to block waste importations, so they also rely on us to deal with this issue. As for the final consumers, they need to understand the importance of garbage separation.
One of the biggest challenges today is the decreasing the use of coloured bottles, blue, green, yellow etc. because none of them can be recycled. We need to think critically about what we can improve to reduce our wastes. For example, Korea recently banned the use of any coloured bottle in December.
What would be your mid-term strategy for an even bigger impact?
The world largest beverage companies have commonly announced that they aim to reach 100% use of recycled PET bottles by 2030, as opposed to 50% today. We filed an international patent for our technology to produce PET bottles directly from the flakes. We are now planning to expand our presence to help these largest beverage companies in the world reach their objective. We are also constantly trying to improve our processes such as the introduction of recycling solution for bio materials and chemicals.
With your company starting negotiations with the largest beverages companies, what are the next steps you are planning to take to bring your operations to the global stage?
Our largest customer being Suntory, we are de facto present on the global stage. Suntory has activities all across Asia, Europe and South America, so when such an important player aim for 100% use of recycled bottles, the right thing to do is to work alongside them and do what we can to help them meet their goals. We are receiving requests from all around the world but we need to scale-up our activity step-by-step. We have also opened a branch in China in 1995 and the role of this factory is to support the Japanese-based firms in China in collecting pre-consumers’ bottles and recycling their waste.
If we had to take this interview again in 5 years, what dreams would you like to have achieved by then?
For the past three decades, I have worked hard to fulfil one dream and slowly, we start seeing the society moving towards a better direction. So in a way, I have already been able to realize this dream. I have been able to overcome one of the obstacles when it comes to the recycling process itself and its adoption from the society. For the longest time, people were against what I was doing and I still continued to promote the idea that it would eventually benefit the society, the consumers and the beverage makers. I never broke under these criticisms and pressures against me and I am proud today that people acknowledge the importance of recycling in a world that cannot live without plastic anymore. I believe that the next generation will be able to continue this work more easily. We would also like to expand our activity to recycling other products such as bio products and chemical materials and eventually reduce the final amount of waste buried in landfills.