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Life Cycle Analysis of Metal Use in Japan

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Life Cycle Analysis of Metal Use in Japan

Life cycle analysis (also known as life cycle assessment or LCA) is used to track the movement of raw materials, such as metals, wood pulp, plastic, and glass from virgin material to refined material to product to obsolete product to recycling and ultimate disposal. This approach is part of the field of industrial ecology, which models the movement of raw materials through industrial systems in much the same way as biological ecology models the movement of carbon, energy or other resources through an ecosystem. Just as ecosystems develop strategies to conserve limited resources, industrial systems similarly benefit from creative conservation strategies. This approach also links industrial processes with their impact on the environment, and by extension, on human health. Industrial ecology works to optimize the use of resources, energy and capital. Figure 1 provides an overview this scheme.

Figure 1: Overview
ife cycle analysis is an effective approach for industrialized countries, such as Japan, to address concerns about the health and environmental impact of metal use. While it can be difficult to ensure that environmental regulations are followed in developing countries where metals are extracted, it is possible for companies to develop more efficient strategies for the use of metals in the products that they manufacture, and, more importantly, for their safe recycling and disposal. Ideally these are win-win strategies – the environment is protected and companies save money with more efficient processes.

Since the passage of the “Fundamental Law for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society” in 2000 and the proposal of the “3R Initiative” at the G8 summit in 2004, Japan has been a leader in developing strategies for reducing, reusing and recycling (the 3R’s). As a small country with a large population, the use of these strategies is particularly crucial. In addition to employing these approaches domestically, Japan has sought to adapt them to other countries, including Japanese factories located elsewhere in Asia. Japan is also concerned about safe recycling and disposal of discarded products in other Asian countries, which are often dumping grounds for waste from industrialized nations. Japan is a signatory to the Basel Convention of 1994, a multilateral agreement to ban the export of hazardous waste to poor countries. An overview of Japanese recycling laws can be found at

As countries around the world work to implement the 3Rs, they face common dilemmas. For example, in designing programs for the recycling and disposal of discarded manufactured products, who should be responsible their proper disposition? In the US, municipalities traditionally carried off all garbage without charging an extra fee, and nearly all of it was taken to landfills. Voluntary recycling programs beginning in the 1980’s in most places encouraged the separation of packaging materials into plastic, glass and metal, but these programs did not accept discarded appliances or electronics, which contain many kinds of materials, some valuable, some toxic. More recently, cities have begun to charge a modest fee to pick up discarded electronics, Auto repair shops often charge to dispose of old car batteries, and a few retailers have introduced programs to accept discarded products. In most cases, however, it is unclear what happens to this electronic waste once it has been collected.

In contrast, Japan has been quick to recognize the value of extracting valuable metals from discarded consumer products, a process sometimes called “urban mining”. The Law for the Promotion of the Effective Utilization of Resources LPEUR), passed by the Japanese legistlature in 2001, covers both eco-design and recycling. New products must be designed for easy disassembly, so that recyclable parts are readily accessible. The law also mandates extended producer responsibility (EPR), which requires manufacturers to accept packaging and discarded products (usually through a third party) so that they can be disposed of safely. Accordingly, the purchase price of a computer includes a fee of about $40 to cover the cost of recycling it. Old cell phones can be dropped off in bins located at convenient stores throughout Japan, and the Japanese post office collects discarded personal computers. This e-waste is then processed at safe and efficient smelters throughout Japan which operate with a “closed loop,” minimizing the release of dangerous effluents. Urban mining is profitable, as a ton of cell phones contain more gold than a ton of ore.

While Japan has developed effective strategies to deal with domestic e-waste, there are concerns about the fate of Japanese products in other countries. Japan of course, is a leading exporter of new manufactured products, and retailers in the US and other countries are not required to accept discarded products for recycling. In addition, while the export of e-waste from Japan is banned, Japan does export many used cars, computers and other products that are still functional. However, most of these products eventually break down in places where there are no regulations for their safe recycling. They often wind up in countries like China, India and Nigeria, where a mountain of e-waste is literally a gold mine – an easier source of precious metals than the deposits underground. Unfortunately, the extraction of these materials often takes place in the informal sector near or even inside people’s homes. Small scale factories that have been built to process these materials usually lack the environmental safeguards needed to handle these materials safely. Dangerous levels of copper, lead, mercury and other heavy metals have reported in these facilities and in the blood of workers and their families.

An unexpected and worrisome problem in Japan is what to do with an excess of recovered toxic metal. Japan collects more than 100 tons of mercury per year, but only uses about 13 tons in manufacturing. They have been exporting the extra mercury, since they have been unable to devise a satisfactory plan to dispose of mercury safely in Japan. Unfortunately, much of this mercury is used in dangerous and environmentally-threatening artisanal gold mining.

While the third “R”, recycling, has been embraced by companies that can see both social and economic benefits of using reclaimed materials, progress on the first two Rs, reduce and reuse, has been slower. At the manufacturing level, progress has been made in devising more efficient production processes, with benefits to both manufacturers and the environment. However, no company wishes to reduce the demand for its products. New models render old ones obsolete, and appliances such as water heaters and washing machines are often designed to have a limited lifespan. This maintains demand for new products and profits for the companies that make them. Some companies do design their products for easy upgradability, while others, such as computer makers Dell and Gateway, offer leasing programs for their products, and thus are able to upgrade the computers as needed by new customers, and to ultimately recycle their components once they are no long usable.

In conclusion, life cycle analysis gives insight into the movement of metals and other materials through the environment. The increased awareness of waste and inefficiency in the manufacturing and disposal of metal-containing products can lead to improved strategies for reducing the environmental impact of metal use. Japan has been a leader in developing safe recycling programs for e-waste and other discarded metal products. Yet all countries face concerns about how to handle these recovered materials safely. Our proposed meeting in Japan will give us an opportunity to learn more about how Japanese companies apply this knowledge to all aspects of the product life cycle. We will also work together to address new and persistent concerns about the handling of toxic metals, benefitting human health and the environment.


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