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The Japanese automobile recycling system – is it a success?

Dr Kenichi Togawa, Professor at Kumamoto University in Japan, with the aid of Yoko Yoshido from Metal Solution Provider Co., Ltd., provides Auto Recycling World with his insight into the Japanese automobile recycling system and tells us how introducing the electric manifest system has affected the industry.

 

The Japanese automobile recycling system - is it a success? feat four
Yoko Yoshida (left) and Dr Kenichi Togawa

Overall, the Japanese automobile recycling system seems satisfactory, but society has been changing more rapidly than initially thought. It is governed by the Automobile Recycling Act, which was enacted in 2002 and enforced in 2005. Since then, recycling responsibilities have been on manufacturers and importers. Users need to pay recycling fees to Japan Automobile Recycling Promotion Center (JARC) when purchasing a new vehicle and not when they dispose of the vehicle. In the 1990s, approximately 3.5 million cars were deregistered, and limited landfill space increased disposal fees; therefore, dumping in the mountains consequently became routine.

The Japanese automobile recycling system - is it a success? p three
Illegal dumping on a remote island in Japan before the Japanese Automotive Recycling Law was enacted in 2002

This law successfully clarified between legal and illegal dismantlers by introducing an electric manifest system. The government gives a right to issue the electric manifest only to those who process ELVs correctly. In the 1990s, dismantlers were neither legal nor illegal—nothing defined “legal” dismantling.

This new system defined the legitimacy of the dismantler and improved the traceability of used cars. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry was proud of this environmentally correct law. However, this law does not consider critical factors such as the growth of the internet auction markets.

Recyclers are mandated to record the disposal of chlorofluorocarbon gas, airbags, and ASR for each car they process on the electric manifest network. It was believed that this electric system reduced an enormous amount of paperwork. However, many recyclers avoid this complex electric manifest and simply forward it to the auctioneer. As a result, many dismantlers cannot get sufficient work and need to go to the auction market to buy enough ELVs.

The Japanese automobile recycling system - is it a success? p two
A dismantling yard near Tokyo Narita International Airport

A unique and complex deposit system also does not help easy recycling. When a person buys a vehicle, whether it is new or second hand, they need to pay a recycling fee as a potential final owner. When the car eventually reaches an ATF, the ATF gets the money-back according to what they process; the chlorofluorocarbon gas, airbags, and/or ASR are recorded on the electric manifest. However, if a person exports the vehicle, they receive money back because they are not the final owner anymore. In addition, the deposit they receive back has interest added from the government bonds. Recyclers are highly motivated to export cars but not to recycle. Ironically, this law is now called “a used-vehicle-export-promotion law.”

The Automobile Recycling Act has been revised every five years. It does not consider emergency situations like big earthquakes and pandemics. Disaster waste management has many challenges, and the academic sector tries to build a practical system, as yet, not succeeded. No one can justify whether submerged vehicles from catastrophic heavy rain or floods should be dismantled into each part in such an extraordinary situation where people struggle to survive.

The rapid growth of EVs is also beyond the scope of initial assumption, and we cannot wait for long until the first generation of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries come out in the market. A sectionalism between the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism also make vehicle recycling more challenging in Japan. It’s been more than two decades since they started jockeying for position among mainstream factions. The ministry of Environments was newly established in 2001, and it still cannot play an important role.

The Japanese government can no longer ignore the final disposal of used cars exported from Japan under globally increasing the pressure of sustainability and the circular economy.

The Japanese automobile recycling system - is it a success? p one
A large ATF in Aomori Prefecture (June 2020)

During the last two decades, the number of used cars exported from Japan increased from 370,000 to 1.3 million. The government began to plan to export recycling technologies and systems to South-East Asian countries to minimise environmental impact. Yet the collection of used cars in a local market is quite difficult without cooperation from the local authorities. Even in Japan, public awareness is still lacking. Only the experts know this recycling system well. Continuous review is unavoidable to make this rapidly changing recycling environment better.

If you would like to contact Dr Togawa, please email him at togaw@kumamoto-u.ac.jp

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