Japanese Eco-Design May Help Businesses Meet New EU Standards

Japanese Eco-Design May Help Businesses Meet New EU Standards

Japanese companies are making strides in eco-design, recycling, and lead-free soldering technologies -– and could help European businesses cope with tighter EU legislation on products and waste.

Japan is running out of landfill, says a report by the U.K.-based Center for Sustainable Design. In less than five years its waste sites will be filled to capacity. But a £140 billion technology program, combined with new laws on recycling and green purchasing, is spurring new, recyclable products, says the CFSD.

Japan aims to create a ‘closed loop’ consumer society, where products and materials are endlessly recycled – zero waste to landfill while consumers keep buying. Sony plans to double its sales by 2010 without increasing its environmental impact, says Clive Grinyer of the U.K. Design Council.

Under the new laws, at least half of all home appliances must be recycled, with higher targets being phased in. According to the CFSD’s report, “The ‘State of the Art’ in Eco-Design in the Japanese Electronics Sector,” the Japanese have exceeded their first year targets of recycling 50%-60% of televisions, air conditioners, fridges, and washing machines by up to 78%.

Electrical giant Matsushita recently opened the Matsushita Eco Technology Center to show the public how it will recycle 400,000 appliances a year. ‘Take back’ schemes have also been successful, prompted by ‘Shame on you’ advertising campaigns against fly-tipping. Those that don’t comply with the new laws are fined £1,500 each or up to £500,000 for a firm.

Businesses are re-designing products, making them smaller and easier to dismantle with reusable or recyclable parts, says the CFSD. At the waste end, discarded products are being assessed for their dismantability and recyclability. New materials are also being launched, such as a hybrid made from plastic and wood, while recycled materials are finding new uses, such as recycled plastic in fishing floats. Even compact discs are being recovered, where the metallic coating is burnt off to enable re-recording, says Grinyer.

“We saw tough goals being set by the companies we visited,” says Professor Martin Charter of the CFSD. But eco-design, even in Japan, is not yet up to scratch, because designers are still too focused on ‘end-of-pipe’ rather than the creation stage, says Charter. Nevertheless, lessons can be learnt from the advances made by the Japanese, whose products will be compatible with legislation like the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment and Restriction of Hazardous Substances directives.

“The DTI should be putting more money into raising awareness of eco-design, particularly for small businesses,” Charter says. The worry is that small businesses lack the knowledge and ability to adapt to incoming legislation and use the tools of eco-design to make their products marketable.
Companies may need to create checklists, buy software, foster partnerships and build dismantling workshops to meet WEEE, says Charter. “But half of business are burying their heads in the sand over the new directive.” The CFSD has set up a project, ETMUEL, to help companies harness eco-design.

“Small companies need to ask their suppliers for parts that meet the directives. If they can’t, they may have to switch to new suppliers,” John Simmons of Crawford, Hansford, and Kimber says. “Small firms also need checklists, or access to databases of individual components, to determine which parts of their product need to be re-designed or replaced.”

Companies should also beware of the life-cycle assessment, used indiscriminately in Japan to work out the environmental impact of products, says Professor Eric Billet of Brunel University. An LCA can become redundant if a product is slightly modified, and because the assessment is not standardized, companies can come up with different answers for the same product. Overconfidence in LCAs can also lead firms to rely too heavily on unverified data coming from their suppliers, says Billet.

A separate report from Tokyo’s newspaper, the Daily Yomiuri, says that the Tokyo government may revise legislation to force 1,000 factories and offices to cut carbon dioxide emissions to meet Kyoto Protocol reduction targets. According to Billet, one company in Japan has already set up an internal system of carbon trading between its departments.