It’s the shame old story

While the UK’s fridge mountains continue to swell, Clive Grinyer thinks that we can learn much from the Japanese about the recycling of electrical goods

At the meeting with METI, the Japanese Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, in Tokyo this summer, my fellow travellers and I were introduced to a general feeling of shame. There, about a third through the flow diagram outlining the legislative programme of the ministry to turn Japan into a recycling-oriented nation, was this little phase. After passing a basic law requiring all to pay a small sum for their electronic products to be recycled at the end of their use, and running a publicity campaign to raise awareness of the problems of huge amounts of un-recycled electronics, the ministry could predict that a general mood of shame would motivate people to co-operate with the huge project to completely recycle electrical equipment. They were right. When the laws were passed last year requiring all refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines and TVs to be recycled, illegal dumping decreased. A national network of over 350 recyling collection points have been set up by the manufacturers and in a display of corporate co-operation, a series of shared disassembly plants, smash, rip and melt down the metal, plastics and glass, often immediately re-using the materials in new products. The Japanese take Kyoto seriously. They have to. With a 50 million population huddled around the capital in the thin strip before the mountains that make up most of Japan, there is little room for landfill sites and the contamination from refrigerants and lead. Comparing Japanese efficiency and commitment to our own attempts at recycling is not pleasant. Our piles of refrigerators, waiting for their linings to be removed at a plant that doesn’t exist yet, have become the object for national ridicule. Ironically, we were apparently ahead of others in recycling fridges until the legislation went further than we’d noticed. Compare too a recent experience of a mum-to-be who bought a new fridge. The local authority would pick up her old one, with six weeks notice, or quicker if she paid £25, but only if it was on the street, with which they couldn’t help her, despite her condition – a strong incentive to tip it out the window and leave it there. Recycling is not just about plants and picking up, the full experience from the user’s point of view has to be understood to ensure it all works. But this is not just about saving the planet, or keeping our streets tidy. The strongest lesson from Japan is that recycling is good for business, and that design is the way to do it. It may have been painful to invest in the plant and infrastructure required for recycling. But now the benefits begin to show. After all, you’ve already paid for the plastic, metal and glass, so using it twice, three times and more makes a lot of financial sense, and not just in terms of the material cost. Leaner, more efficient systems and less waste of energy and materials lead to real competitive advantage. Customers may not have bought it yet, but people care about the softer aspects of corporate behaviour, like where your running shoes are made, and environmental reporting has become a major buyer of design services to communicate their efforts to behave responsibly. Knowing all Panasonic products use lead-free solder (take note UK electronics manufacturers) may change your feelings about that brand. One trick the Japanese have missed, however, is design. The phones, dishwashers and fridges that have been radically redesigned on the inside, look identical on the outside. A range of little green logos are the only clue that the product has a story to tell. If you are using a material that is really easy to recycle such as magnesium, you’d think they’d make the most of it, rather than hide it behind plastic covers. How do you tell the recycler of ten years in the future that the type of plastic or which bit to open first. Some effort has already been made in creating icons to help recyclers all over the world know what to do but there is real opportunity for Europe’s designers to lead the way on these new approaches. Everything Japan has done, we will have to do within a few years when Europe-wide directives hit. Let every product, packaging and graphic designer help our companies address these issues now, rather than wait to be left punch drunk by the comet of legislation, and maybe even market forces. Let’s try not to repeat those memories of fridge mountains outside every corporation dump, and the general feeling of shame that that induced.

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