Plastic recycling attracts investment in Japan after China ban
No longer able to export as much waste, companies seek new solutions
TOKYO — Japanese companies are pouring investment into plastic recycling facilities to handle the rise in bottles and used home electronics remaining in the country following China’s near-total ban on imports of plastic waste.
Established businesses are joining the field. Suntory Holdings helped develop a technology that reduces carbon emissions from the production of containers by 25% and is working with Kyoei Sangyo, a plastic-bottle recycler north of Tokyo, to use it in recycling. Kyoei Sangyo has invested 2 billion yen with Suntory in a group facility to supply 300 million recycled plastic bottles each year.
Trading house Sojitz aims to invest in or buy a company as early as spring that produces pellets from the processed material.
Japan generated 9.03 million tons of plastic waste in 2017. About one-tenth of the volume — 900,000 tons — was shipped to China, which received 70% of Japan’s plastic waste exports.
But China banned plastic waste imports at the end of 2017 to reduce pollution from the recycling process. Shipments from Japan to China fell to a mere 2,000 tons monthly in 2018 from a peak of 86,000 tons in August 2017. Finding alternative destinations is difficult as other Asian countries tighten regulations on plastic waste.
Specialists in the field are bolstering their capabilities. Daiei Kankyo Holdings, a recycling company based in Kobe, looks to open a 1.5 billion yen ($13.8 million) plant in Osaka Prefecture during fiscal 2020.
The center will recycle plastic waste that China previously would have accepted, as well as produce cases for transportation of food and other items. The plant’s capacity will be double the company’s current levels, raising the total to around 30,000 tons a year.
Home electronics and plastic bottles collected for recycling in Japan were shipped to China, where local companies disassembled them manually to produce pellets.
With more plastic waste recycled in Japan rather than China, where labor is cheaper, rising costs are a concern to businesses that pay for recycling. Efforts to lower processing costs through automated equipment would be key.
China’s environmental regulations have shaken up supply chains for a variety of materials. Demand has surged for graphite electrodes used to generate heat in electric furnaces for producing steel, as China encourages the more environmentally friendly method in place of coal-burning blast furnaces.
Tokai Carbon, a Japanese supplier of graphite electrodes, already has sold out for this year and is working to increase production capacity. Fellow supplier Showa Denko also seen a tighter supply-demand balance.
Semiconductor producers have taken a hit from the 2017 price surge for hydrofluoric acid. The acid is used to make gas for semiconductor production. China’s regulations on fluorite, from which hydrofluoric acid is produced, are seen as a factor. China is said to account for 60% to 70% of the global output of fluorite.