Posts Tagged ‘recycling’

In Tokyo, all garbage is not created equal

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Why am I blue?: Trash in city-mandated garbage bags waiting to be collected

Why am I blue?: Trash in city-mandated garbage bags waiting to be collected

Two weeks ago the city of Chiba announced that it would start charging noncommercial residents for garbage collection in February. Like many municipalities throughout Japan it will use a garbage bag system: All refuse must be deposited for collection in special bags sold by the city. Presently, Chiba only charges businesses for refuse collection, but the cost of processing garbage continues to go up. In the beginning, residents will pay ¥36 for a 45-liter bag, regardless of whether the trash is burnable or non-burnable. That comes to about ¥0.8 per liter, which will only put a very small dent in the city’s revenue problems. Three years ago Chiba was spending ¥13.3 billion a year on refuse processing, and estimated that 45 liters worth of burnable trash cost ¥280 to dispose of. The same amount of non-burnable trash cost ¥220 to process.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, local governments started charging their residents for refuse collection around the turn of the millennium. Now, about 55 percent of municipalities in Japan do so, and most use the garbage bag system, which only pays for part of the cost. However, the burden on residents varies widely from one place to another, even within the prefecture of Tokyo.

People who live in the 23 wards don’t pay any extra for refuse collection, but those who live in the cities and towns of the Tama region of Western Tokyo pay a lot A woman interviewed in the article recently moved from Ota Ward to Mitaka City. Where she used to live she paid nothing for trash collection, but Mitaka requires that refuse be placed in bags, otherwise it won’t be picked up. A package of 10 purple 40-liter bags costs ¥750.

Continue reading about garbage regulations →

With refrigerators, bigger is better in more ways than you think

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

High end: a 603-liter refrigerator with a five-star rating and 244 percent energy efficiency that uses ¥5,500 of electricity a year

High end: a 603-liter refrigerator with a five-star rating and 244 percent energy efficiency that uses ¥5,500 of electricity a year

Over the past decade or so our diet has changed slightly. We almost never eat meat at home and have gradually eliminated most dairy products. Consequently, the volume of food in our refrigerator has decreased over time, and since we bought it in 2002 it is already considered obsolete, inefficient even. Refrigeration technology has improved markedly in the past 10 years to the point that devices made now use as little as one-fourth the amount of energy used by an equivalent sized refrigerator made in the ’80s or ’90s. And since we are contemplating moving sometime in the future we decided it might be a good idea to buy a new, smaller model when we do in order to take advantage of this greater efficiency.

So we went to our local discount electronics store and looked at all the models. Of course, smaller refrigerators cost less than larger ones, but when we looked at the energy consumption specifications we became confused. The bigger the volume of the refrigerator, the less energy it used. In some comparisons the difference was startling. If you look on the inside of the main compartment door of a refrigerator there is a sticker with the pertinent specifications, one of which is the average amount of kilowatts the appliance uses in a given year when operating continuously. We saw one 500-liter model that used only 40 percent of the energy that a 350-liter model used. The manufacturers make the comparison even easier by printing the average amount of money you will pay in electricity for a year on the outside of a given model. Moreover, there are star ratings, from one to five, that indicate energy efficiency in relative terms, with five stars indicating the most efficient.

We asked a salesman if there was a smaller refrigerator that was as efficient as a large one and he quickly said there wasn’t. The difference he said was that larger refrigerators used inverters to control the operation of the compressors in a smoother fashion, while smaller refrigerators used conventional compressors that simply went on and off to control interior temperatures. The inverter, however, also makes the refrigerator itself more expensive. When we said our present refrigerator was 415 liters and that we wanted something smaller, he said rather presumptuously, “I can tell you which size you need.”

Since we aren’t newlyweds and found his manner condescending we decided to look into the matter ourselves. The star system is administered by the Energy Conservation Center of Japan, a government organ, and is based on the energy savings achievement rate (sho-ene taseiritsu) established by the 2006 Energy Conservation Law. The unit used for comparison’s sake is Annual Performance Factor, a means of measuring energy efficiency. In order to come up with an efficiency rating, the ECCJ currently uses “the most efficient product” on the market in terms of energy consumption in 2010. The efficiency percentages on the store sticker are based on APF and thus only indicate relative values. For instance, an energy efficiency finding of 110 percent means that the model is 10 percent more efficient than the 2010 model chosen by the ECCJ as the standard, and which is not publicly disclosed. The stars are more or less a means of making these comparisons even easier. However, comparing refrigerator prices against money saved on electricity bills may require a certain algebraic capability that most consumers don’t possess or, if they do, probably don’t want to bother with.

Conventional compressors, which use electricity and chemicals to cool the interior of the refrigerator, turn off when the desired temperature is reached and then turn on again when the temperature rises above that level. It takes a lot of energy to turn a compressor on. The inverter works on a kind of fuzzy logic principle. It keeps the compressor working all the time but at variable levels, using less energy in the process. It also produces much less noise since conventional compressors tend to get loud when they start up again. That’s why an older refrigerator, or a smaller new one, suddenly kicks into high gear whenever you open the door. An inverter will add at least ¥20,000 to the price of a refrigerator, and according to one website we saw electronics manufacturers don’t think people will buy smaller refrigerators if the price is above a certain threshold, so they don’t bother putting inverters in them.

Of course, some people simply think that the small-big energy-saving paradox is a scheme by these manufacturers to compel consumers to buy refrigerators that may be too big for their homes or their needs, since profit margins rise almost exponentially with the price of the unit. If that’s the case then it seems to be working. Last year, the only household appliances whose recycling rates increased were air conditioners (up 0.8 percent) and refrigerators (2.7 percent).

Annals of cheap: Don Don Down on Wednesday

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

We all know Japanese people prefer new stuff — new homes, new rice, new prime ministers every 12 months — which may explain why the used clothing business isn’t as big here as it is in other countries. According to the Asahi Shimbun, 50 percent of discarded used clothing in America is recycled, either commercially or as contributions, and the portion in South Korea is 80 percent. In Japan, it’s only 20 percent, meaning that the rest is simply trashed. But that may change with the advent of a new model for used clothing stores.

Don Don's website

Don Don’s website

Don Don Up Co. Ltd., headquarted in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, opened its first used clothing store, called Don Don Down on Wednesday, in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, eight years ago. The company now commands a chain of 60 outlets nationwide, with more to come. Don Don, an onomatopoeic word expressing a process of steady progression, came up with an ingenious pricing system that not only saves the company overhead and personnel costs, but draws customers on a weekly basis by turning shopping into a “game,” as its promotional literature puts it.

All the merchandise is affixed with price tags, but the tags don’t display yen amounts. Instead they have pictures of fruits and vegetables, 10 in all. The pictures represent prices, which range from a high of ¥5,250 (i.e., ¥5,000 for the item plus 5 percent consumption tax) to a low of ¥105. These prices are listed on charts alongside their corresponding symbols and posted throughout the store. The price tag on a particular item never changes as long as it remains in the store.

The charts are changed weekly. For instance, this week, perhaps, all the strawberry items cost ¥5,250, but next week, all the remaining strawberry items will be priced at ¥4,200. Each week, the line of a particular fruit or vegetable goes down one pricing rank until it reaches ¥105. The following week all the items previously priced at ¥105 are removed from stock and exported to Southeast Asia in bulk, which means no item stays in the store for more than ten weeks. The weekly price changes take effect on Wednesdays, thus explaining the name of the store. Not surprisingly, that’s the day they do their biggest business.

This system adds a touch of drama to the shopping experience. If a customer likes a particular item she can buy it right away or take a chance and wait til the following week when it’s cheaper, but then she risks the possibility that someone else will buy it. The president of the company told Asahi, “I want our customers to enjoy shopping as if playing a game. I wanted to change the image of the used clothing store, which tends to be dark.”

At first, the scheme was to try to replace the inventory as often as possible to keep people coming, but that meant changing price tags on a continuing basis to weed out unpopular items. It wasn’t until management hit on the fixed price tag system that they figured a way to not only streamline operations but make the process interesting for consumers.

As for procuring merchandise, Don Don’s method is similar to Book Off’s, Japan’s pioneer in used merchandise, which boasts 900 outlets. It bases the price it pays for a book on its condition and then places a seal on each volume that indicates how long is has been in the store. Every book that remains on the shelf for three months automatically gets reduced to ¥105.

When those don’t sell, they’re pulped. With the exception of some brand items, Don Don buys clothing from anyone by the kilogram: ¥500 for “very popular” items, ¥50 for “popular” items, and ¥10 for “useful” items. And they pay 50 percent more on Mondays and Thursdays. More significantly, they refuse very little that is wearable, since they can always sell it, again by the kilogram, to wholesalers in Southeast Asia. Just like produce.

Recycling rackets poised to make a killing at New Year’s

Friday, December 24th, 2010

With the danshari fad peaking, the custom of New Years housecleaning (osoji) becomes more urgent, which could mean bigger piles of garbage at the curb and more calls to local government offices for “oversized refuse” (sodaigomi) pickups. It should also mean a higher than usual spike in business for independent haikibutsu shori (waste disposal) companies, and it seems the authorities are keeping an eye on the situation. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, over the past several months police in four prefectures have arrested representatives of 13 waste disposal companies for collecting refuse without the proper licenses.

Bring out your dead!

These companies are rackets. They slowly patrol residential areas in small pickup trucks equipped with loudspeaker systems, offering to cart away broken or unused household appliances. What often happens is that someone flags down the truck and says he has some things he wishes to dispose of. The driver picks up the items and places them in the back of the truck and then demands a fee that is much higher than the owner of the items expected; if, in fact, he expected to pay a fee at all. Sometimes, the recorded announcements vaguely imply that there is no charge, though they are careful not to actually use the word “muryo” (free). This practice is known as “sakizumi,” or “pre-loading,” meaning the removal fee is quoted after the item is put on the truck. According to police, the fee is sometimes as much as ¥30,000 or even ¥50,000 per item. Of course, the person could simply refuse to pay and remove the item from the back of the truck, but that might be very difficult if the item is a washing machine or some other heavy appliance. In any case, most of these victims are embarrassed and intimidated (the drivers are often described as being rough in appearance and manner) and just pay. The companies seem to purposely target older residents. (It should be pointed out that not all recycling companies that patrol neighborhoods in small trucks are rackets, but it should also be pointed out that few of them, despite what they say in their flyers, will take your stuff for free.)

Continue reading about recycling scams →

New refuse rules criminalize can-collecting

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Some years ago certain enterprising margin-dwellers, for the most part homeless men, started rummaging through refuse bins at train stations for discarded magazines and comic books, and then sold them to equally enterprising persons who in turn resold them to commuters for less then the cover prices. Publishers eventually got hip to this practice and pressured the authorities to crack down on these pirates.

No, you can't (photo Mark Thompson)

The crackdown obviously closed one small window of income opportunity for homeless men, and recently the government of Tokyo’s Sumida Ward passed a law that may shut another one. On Oct. 1 a new regulation went into effect in the ward that makes it illegal for anyone except agents authorized to do so by the ward government to remove recyclables left at designated refuse locations. The ostensible reason for this law is to prevent removal companies that do not have contracts with Sumida Ward from taking recyclables such as cans, bottles and newspapers. However, groups that support the homeless have complained that the law effectively criminalizes an activity that many indigent inviduals rely on for their only income. It’s not uncommon, especially in areas near the Sumida River, to see homeless men pushing shopping carts loaded down with enormous collections of discarded aluminum cans, which they deliver to recycling centers for cash.

Most of the local governments that have passed such laws — 13 of Tokyo’s 23 wards have these regulations, as well as the cities of Saitama, Sapporo and Chiba, to mention only three — say they are not specifically targeting the homeless, but homeless support groups, some of whom have held rallies recently at prominent locations in Sumida Ward, including the area surrounding the Tokyo Sky Tree, have said that these regulations’ lack of specifics as to what consitutes an “unauthorized agent” opens the door for a crackdown on homeless can collecting, and, in turn, may further demonize the homeless in the eyes of the general population. The city of Kyoto, for instance, enforces a similar refuse law but plans to amend it with a clause that respects homeless people’s “independence.” The Sumida Ward rule sets a fine of up to ¥200,000 for violations.

Continue reading about can-collecting regulations →

Dealing with the disposable

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Aun recently rented the building across the street to cover expansion

Awn recently rented the building across the street to cover expansion

Recycling unwanted household effects is a big business and will likely become even bigger in the future. In most cases you have to pay to have your stuff hauled away, even by those little trucks that drive slowly around residential neighborhoods calling for people to give them their used computers, stereos, what-have-you. These businesses say they’ll take your things for free, but once you bring the item all the way to their truck they usually have some kind of handling fee they forgot about.

Outside looking in

There are places that will take your still usable refuse for free; though, of course, they’ll be more selective about it. One is Awn (pronounced “ah-oon”; it stands for Asian Workers Network), which is located in Higashi Nippori in eastern Tokyo. Awn started eight years ago as a “recycle shop” whose purpose had less to do with recycling or making money than with jobs.

The business is staffed by people, mostly older men, who are or used to be homeless. When Awn started it had five workers and now it has about 20. These men earn all their money through their work for the shop, which accepts donations of a wide range of items. Over the years Awn has expanded and moved several times. Many of the men who work there have earned enough money to get off the street, which is, in the end, the real aim of the enterprise.

In terms of donations, Awn is mainly interested in men’s clothing because it can also give clothing away to homeless men. Since their space is limited there are some items of clothing they don’t accept, like skirts and kimono. They do accept women’s apparel but only that which is considered “practical,” meaning sellable. They accept accessories like bags, hats, and even shoes, but no men’s suits. Also, no skiwear or white dress shirts.

Continue reading about recycle shop Awn →

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