What it takes to recycle all the cars in Japan

I had the opportunity to visit with my university the Ecotown Project in Southern Japan this week. Ecotown is an industrial zone in the town of Kitakyushu. The area was the site of Japan’s first modern iron steel works in the early 20th century and it was one of the most polluted industrial harbours in Japan.

But today, thanks to the efforts of the residents and industrial planners, the city of Kitakyushu is one of the cleanest industrial cities in the world. And it was honoured at the UNCED conference held in 1992 for its efforts.

I have to admit I had never heard of Ecotown prior to this trip. I had been to Kitakyushu before and have past through it several times en route to other places, but I did not know about its status as an environmentally friendly city until now.

Twenty-three industrial complexes within the industrial zone work to recycle as much waste products as possible. The range of recycled products includes:

  • paper
  • PET bottles
  • automobiles
  • office equipment
  • household appliances
  • fluorescent light bulbs
  • medical equipment
  • construction waste
  • non-ferrous metals
  • household waste

We were given an overview at the Welcome Centre (mainly on PET bottle recycling) and then given a tour of the automobile and office equipment recycling plants. But here I will focus only on the automobile recycling.

This automobile recycling plant was the first in Japan. It is perhaps the most efficient in that it recycles 95 percent of the car while the average in Japan 70-80 percent. The way it works is that it is similar to an assembly line but in this case it is a disassembly line. Disassembly is completely manually with the help of equipment. The disassembling is done in the following way:

  1. outer parts (bumpers, doors, windows, etc)
  2. liquids (oil, freon, etc)
  3. plastics (seat, carpet, etc)
  4. mechanical parts (engine, suspension, etc)
  5. non-ferrous parts (radiators, heater core, etc)
  6. crushed (in a compactor)

At the end of this process you have a lot of plastic and liquid which goes to other recycling plants, a bunch of parts which are cleaned to be sold and reused and a 600kg block of steel to be recycled. The five percent lost is basically the outer plastics of wiring in the melting process.

It takes on average forty-five minutes to disassemble one car. Our guide said 50-60 cars can be disassembled in a day. Assuming this to be the pace (minus weekends) 13,000 cars can be disassembled in a year at this one plant. And assuming the that we recycle all the 5 million (yes, that is the number of cars scrapped in Japan annually) cars scrapped is recycled it would take at least 300 such recycling plants to get rid of all disused cars in Japan.

Our guide couldn’t tell me how many such recycling plants existed in Japan. There are twenty-six “Ecotown-like” projects throughout Japan. And even assuming each one had one automobile recycling plant we still need to assume there are others outside such zones. A rough guess wouldn’t put it to be more than fifty. And even if we assume that a large bulk of the disused cars are sold overseas before scrapping (many vehicles are sold to Russia, China, and the Middle East) we still are falling short in terms of recycling.

While this was all very impressive – all this recycling and reusing – I had to ask our guide about the third ‘R’ – reducing. She said the city launched a project last year to reduce household waste by twenty percent. Kitakyushu was above the national average in their waste output. So they were trying to keep up the green image in this area as well.

This question I had posed to her during an earlier session on PET bottles so she didn’t answer it with transportation in mind. While it is important to recycle and reuse it is also necessary to reduce, at the same time, our use of anything including transportation and fuel consumption. To not maintain any one area of the 3 ‘R’s only counteracts the positive effects of the other areas. They need to be acted on as a whole. But having said this I still believe that reduction is the most important because reducing the numbers , in this case vehicles, will mean less need to be recycled and reused in the end.

Imagine if we could reduce the number of cars on the road by one-fifth, like household waste, what the roads (and air) would be like.

3 thoughts on “What it takes to recycle all the cars in Japan”

  1. Ninety-five percent is a pretty amazing number. Seeing with my own eyes I can tell you they were not fudging the figures.

    The recycling process was pretty simple; all manual labour. So the energy was mainly used in the crushing. They also didn’t shred the car. Shredding apparently causes pollution and health problems so a single crush is all that is needed.

    They also somehow gain in thermal energy during the melting or crushing process, which I am not sure how it is done. My Japanese wasn’t up to scratch to catch this point.


  2. Wow, I had no idea anyone anywhere was trying to recycle as much of 95% of a car or at larger scales the figure could be in the 70 to 80% range. Of course, if it was going to happen anywhere Japan would be the place: lots of people, big economy, and very little land. Makes me wonder what sort of effort is going on in the USA.

    Your last point is right on the money. Reducing the production of cars is the quickest way to avoid generating waste. I wonder how much energy is used in the recycling?

    Great post, very interesting topic (and lucky you for having the opportunity to go see this in person!)


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