Before the enactment of the 2001 Home Appliance Recycling Act, Japanese society disposed of many home appliances in landfills. Now, manufacturers recover nearly all products subject to the Home Appliance Recycling Act and recycle them. Panasonic's “from product to product” concept is behind our growing efforts to use the resources reclaimed from products at the end of their useful lives. Specifically, we work to employ the resin recovered from used home appliances (washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioners, and televisions) in our new products.
Contributing to Key Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
Specifically, 12.2 Achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources; and 12.5 Substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling, and reuse
Promoting the Resin Recycling Project to Realize Recycling-Oriented Manufacturing
The resins used in home appliances are easy to mold and process, making them highly suited to mass production. Their usefulness makes them indispensable in manufacturing. On the other hand, to realize the product-to-product recycling process, we must use advanced technologies to selectively recover high-purity resins efficiently and to skillfully handle recycled resins. In 2010, Panasonic announced its environmental action plan, Green Plan 2018, in which it declared its pursuit of recycling-oriented manufacturing. Since then, we have moved forward with our Resin Recycling Project, which has a goal of recycled resin consumption: 45,000 tons or more (2014-2018 total).
The steel, copper, aluminum, and other metals used in home appliances can be reused while maintaining a high degree of quality, just by melting/smelting them with heat or chemicals. However, resins such as polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), and ABS no longer maintain their characteristics when melted together, so they need to be sorted by type and screened for the degree of their purity. Panasonic uses resins in its manufacturing, so it has technologies for producing resins. Thus, by selectively recovering high-purity resins, recycling them, and using these recycled resins in product parts, we can curb the use of virgin materials and contribute to society through the efficient use of resources. This understanding has been driving the Resin Recycling Project.
The resin recycling process
From Product to Product: The Process that Enables this Ideal
The 2001 Home Appliance Recycling Act obliges retailers and manufacturers to promote the recycling of four products: air conditioners, televisions, refrigerators/freezers, and washers/dryers. The retailers' role is to accept these appliances from consumers who wish to dispose of them and give the used appliances to manufacturers, while the manufacturers' role is to accept the used appliances and recycle them (by turning them into new products or otherwise dealing with them).
Panasonic has been moving forward with recycling by establishing a home appliance recycling plant before the enactment of the law. After checking the quality of the recovered resin, we found the possibilities that the resin recovered from home appliances is still usable with no issues. As a home appliance manufacturer, we know what types of resins have been used and what kinds of processes resins have undergone, so we have an advantage in that it is easy for us to create a recycling process. We became fairly confident that we could realize resin recycling from product to product by entering into alliances with other companies.
There are many kinds of resins in the products. It was very important to sort their resins by type in the recovering process. One problem was how to efficiently screen a high volume of resins and recover the high-purity ones. If we are too particular about purity, the recovery efficiency goes down, but if we only focus on recovery efficiency, the resin's purity declines. Therefore, we created a program that optimally balances recovery efficiency and purity, and we developed a device that irradiates crushed appliances with near-infrared radiation to discern and recover PP, PS, and ABS in just one process. Before we introduced this machine, we needed methods for determining each material separately, but this device has dramatically improved our recovery efficiency.
The resin screening device that uses near-infrared radiation to simultaneously screen three types of resin
Another issue is the increasing number of applications for recycled resin. By focusing on developing technologies that allow us to add high-performance features for improved heat and flame resistance, to improve the quality of external appearances, and to skillfully ascertain the characteristics of recycled resin, we have broadened our scope of applications to include internal components for refrigerators, washing machine frames, and other product components.
We garnered praise for these initiatives, and Panasonic’s efforts won the METI Minister's Award at the 2015 Resource Recycling Technologies and Systems Awards, sponsored by the Japan Environmental Management Association for Industry (JEMAI). Then, in 2017, one year ahead of schedule, Panasonic achieved its goal of using more than 45,000 tonnes of recycled resin.
Efforts Toward Using New Resin Materials for a Sustainable Society
As we promote more applications for recycled resins, we are also trying to develop new resin materials for a sustainable society.
The main body of the cordless stick vacuum cleaner we launched last year used Panasonic's proprietary lightweight material, cellulose fiber resin. This resin has a honeycomb structure composed of fibers derived from cellulose, a primary component of plants, making it both lightweight and strong. As the material for the vacuum's high-power motor housing, the resin allowed us to make a lightweight stick vacuum cleaner.
Cellulose is a natural, “green” material extracted from wood and other plant-based sources. Unlike with fossil fuels, we can systematically reproduce cellulose using afforestation and other techniques, and we do not need to worry about exhausting its supply. Broader use of cellulose promises to mitigate concerns about exhausting resource supplies.
Toward a Society in which Recycled Resins Are the Norm
At Panasonic, we believe three issues are limiting the growth of recycled resin use. The first issue is cost. Resources recovered from used home appliances are extremely low cost at the recovery stage. However, recycling these resources and reusing them in products requires technology development and capital investments. To increase the use of recycled resins, we need to ensure that the total costs of these resins are lower than the costs of virgin materials.
The second issue is product design premised on using recycled resins. When considering only the manufacturing process, using virgin materials keeps down costs and labor. However, as we shift our focus to our resource consumption, it is easy to imagine the prospect that we will not be able to use virgin materials for too much longer. To turn this risk into an opportunity and to realize a cycle from product to product, we need to shift to manufacturing that is premised on recycling and using recycled materials. Because we have promoted this idea to our design divisions, we are gradually moving toward a genuine approach to manufacturing that takes recycling into account.
For the third issue, we believe that it is necessary for manufacturers, retailers, national and local governments, consumers, and all other stakeholders to come together and alter how society as a whole thinks about recycling. Home appliances have their respective features. For instance, a television produces beautiful images, while an air conditioner manages the temperature of the air. Resins and other materials do not currently generate value for our customers. Thanks to the SDGs' reach in society, consumers believe that it is good to use recycled resins so as to not waste plastic resources. Earning praise from consumers and becoming their first choice is essential in operating a sustainable business. Moreover, when considering the global development of our resin recycling initiative, it is crucial that we build a recovery infrastructure in developing countries.
Serving Society by Expanding the Use of Recycled Resins
We want to create a system in which we adopt a closed recycling loop for the resins employed in the home appliance industry so we can somewhat indefinitely reuse these resins. At the same time, our founder, Kounosuke Matsushita, thought that profit is our compensation for serving society, so it is vital that we pursue just profits. With our Resin Recycling Project, we hope to establish a model that balances the pursuit of profit with contributions to problem solving, and to share this model with society.