Report: Clothing Recycling in Japan

By Staff | News
Posted Jun 6, 2011

Creating a Used Clothing Recycling System in Japan

Along with economic growth, most people have come to equate the “good life” with owning many things. While we live in an age where many can easily get what they want, when they want it, there is also growing pressure to deal with the overabundance of unused items we own — and keep in storage.

One of these is the old clothes hidden away in our wardrobes. The amount of textile products thrown away, incinerated using fuel, or sent to the landfill comes to about 1.97 million tons per year in Japan — enough to fill three baseball stadiums. Although some people take their old clothes to second-hand shops to be resold or give them away to charity, 90 percent of textile products in Japan are incinerated as combustible waste because there is no established system for recycling clothing.

In Japan, the Basic Act for Promotion of the Recycling-Oriented Society was enacted in 2000, followed by laws for recycling containers and packaging, home appliances, food, construction materials, and automobiles. As a result the recycling rate for corrugated cardboard, for example, is now 95 percent and for beverage cans it’s 88 percent.

As for textile products, however, there is no nationwide recycling law in place. The question is: How can we recycle clothes and other textile products smoothly and efficiently?

In this article, we examine what a recycling-oriented society of the future might be like, starting with looking at the efforts of two organizations tackling this clothing-recycling issue right now: JEPLAN Co. (Japanese only), which developed a technology to convert cotton to bioethanol, and Shibuya University Network (English site), an incorporated nonprofit organization (NPO) that has collected clothes for recycling on an trial basis since 2010.

Recycling Cotton Products into Bioethanol

JEPLAN was established in 2007 as a venture company to introduce recycling-related technologies and schemes. Asked about the factors contributing to the fact that textile products lag behind other products in terms of recycling law, Chie Yoshimura of JEPLAN replies, “We haven’t had an applicable technology to recycle textiles up to now, and throwing out clothes is relatively easy [in our society]. Another factor is that there are many small-sized enterprises in the textile industry, which makes it difficult to take on the initiative as an industry.”

JEPLAN, however, succeeded in developing a breakthrough technology to decompose the cellulose in cotton into an enzyme, and then convert it to ethanol. Recycling used clothing with this technology will not only contribute to a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from incineration but also offer hope for a next-generation fuel that does not compete with food for agricultural resources, such as fuel made from corn or soybeans. Still, cost to produce each liter of ethanol by this method is currently 200 yen (U.S.$2.45). To market it, however, the sales price must be 100 yen (about $1.22) or less under current conditions, so the difference must be made up somehow.

The company utilizes this recycling technology in a factory in the city of Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, which is famous for its production of towels and gauze. The ethanol produced is used as fuel for boilers in an adjacent dying plant and sold elsewhere as “ethanol heavy fuel oil” by blending it with heavy fuel oil.

Trial Clothing Collection by Volunteers

In 2009, with support from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and the Organization for Small & Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation, Japan (SMRJ), JEPLAN conducted an trial project to collect unneeded clothes at retail stores under the name of the “FUKU FUKU Project.” Commercialization of the project began in 2010 and now eight retailers are participating, including Ryohin Keikaku Co., AEON Co., and Marui Group Co. Through the project, which is drawing a good response from citizens, Yoshimura found that many people want to donate their old clothes, stored unused in their wardrobes, when they find out that they can be converted into energy. She began to think that if that is the case, then she wanted to conduct a clothing collection trial with citizen participation next time.

Just around that time, she was offered the opportunity to teach a course, coordinated by the Shibuya University Network, an NPO that offers lifelong learning courses mainly in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, under the concept that “anybody can be a teacher, anywhere can be a campus.” Course coordinator Takatoshi Sato planned Yoshimura’s course in hopes of offering Shibuya’s students, many in their twenties and thirties, opportunities to think about the problem of what to do with used clothes.

In January 2010, Yoshimura taught a course under the title “Unearth the ‘Shibuya Oilfield’! — A Strategy Meeting for Discovering Untapped Recyclable Resources.” This creative title was based on the idea of encouraging students to realize the value of the clothes in their wardrobes at home — with the “oilfield” used as a metaphor in this case — and make good use of them as a resource. In her course, Yoshimura first talked about the current situation and problems with recycling clothing in Japan, and then provided a workshop in which students calculated the amount of bioethanol that could be produced from clothes they brought in, with a view to considering what to do about future recycling possibilities.

Many students were surprised by the fact that their old clothes could be recycled into energy. They came up with various ideas that could lead to future recycling initiatives, and consequently decided on collecting clothes by themselves as a part of the curriculum or as an extracurricular activity. “I was very glad to know that they planned to conduct clothing collection trials on their own initiative, subsequent to the Fuku-Fuku Project,” says Yoshimura, recalling that time.

In September 2010, the students, as volunteers, started collecting clothes from local residents at a community center in the Jingumae area of Shibuya Ward. At the venue, they announced that they would send any reusable clothes to a reuse company and non-reusable clothes to a factory in Ehime Prefecture where they would be recycled into ethanol. The students also conducted a questionnaire survey at the venue. Eventually, 255 kilograms of clothes were collected in total.

Shortly afterwards, the number of people applying to attend Yoshimura’s course increased. Her course was newly named the “Iryo Junkan” (meaning”clothing recycling”) Seminar. Her students conducted clothing collection trials in the same area in November and December 2010, and again in January 2011. As more people became aware of the trial, the amount of clothes collected gradually increased. In January, more than one ton was collected. At the venue, in addition to collecting clothes, they also encouraged citizens to freely exchange reusable clothes or make stuffed toys using used clothes. These attempts created a new communication opportunity as a result.

Establishing a Scheme in Response to the Voices of Many People

According to surveys conducted during the four events to collect used clothes, many people said that they became aware of the technology to change clothes into bioethanol “for the first time thanks to the event.” They also said that the “technology introduced here is great. Such information should be advertised more.”

On the question of whether they are willing to pay a cost for clothes recycling, 7% answered they would be “pleased to pay,” 58% said they were “willing to pay,” and 25% answered that they would be “willing to pay if it is mandatory.” In total, 90% of the respondents said that they would pay the recycling costs, which was by far a larger proportion compared with the 10% of respondents who answered that they did not want to pay. For the question of how much they are willing to pay, many answered “more than 100 yen (about $1.22) for a coat, and up to 50 yen for a shirt.”

Yoshimura says, “Such citizens’ voices are very important when establishing a recycling system. We need to further promote technology development to reduce the bioethanol production costs, while continuing to conduct such grass-roots activities.”

Sato also says, “We held an event to collect clothes at the same place several times successively, which led to building a recycling community. Clothes exchanges and stuffed toy creation activities were popular. We would like to continue conducting such an event in some form, for example, as an event on Neighbors’ Day, which is an annual event that started in France to enhance relationships among neighbors and has also been held in several places in Japan since 2008.”

In the Edo period (1603-1868), clothes were regarded as precious, and people generally kept wearing their clothes until they were no longer repairable. After that they would rip them up to use them for other things, until they also were unusable. Even 60 years ago, right after World War II, most people in Japan would mend any rips in their clothes, make new clothes from old, and finally use them as diapers and dust cloths. In this way, Japanese people had the spirit of “mottainai,” which means not letting things that have value go to waste.

Currently, however, the amount of clothing produced as well as purchased and stored by consumers is huge. Unwanted clothing is most of the time thrown away as waste without being repaired, yet the Japanese people still seem to have the spirit of mottainai. If more people knew that their old clothes could be turned into energy and help mitigate global warming, they would feel good because they can contribute to solving the global warming problem — and clean their closets out at the same time.

While we still have many hurdles to overcome before we have a system in place to properly recycle clothing, we should all help to increase awareness of recycling and provide ideas to establish a smoothly working recycling scheme.

Written by Taeko Ohno and reproduced with permission from Japan for Sustainability Newsletter #105

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May 31, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011, Japan for Sustainability

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