March 31, 2007


End-of-Life Cars: Treasure in Used Car Seats--Reborn as Office Chairs -- With Kaiho Co.

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.55 (March 2007)
Toward a Sustainable Japan--Corporations at Work Article Series No.59

The world had about 840 million cars at the end of 2003. As motorization spreads rapidly in China and India, it is estimated that this number will rise to one billion by 2010. In 2005, car production by Japanese manufacturers totaled 20 million, with half that number in Japan and half overseas. In Japan, roughly five million cars are disposed of every year. About 1.3 million of these were exported as second-hand vehicles, and the remaining 3.7 million were dismantled. Approximately 85 percent of parts (by weight, as of fiscal 2005) per vehicle are reused or recycled in Japan, where roughly two thousand tons of automobile shredder residue (ASR) are generated from more than ten thousand cars every day.

How will the roughly 1.1 tons of material resources contained in a vehicle be utilized after the end of its life? A car could be considered a treasure trove of recyclable materials, as it is made from various components, such as glass, iron, nonferrous metals (e.g., aluminum and copper), rare metals (e.g., platinum and palladium), and synthetic materials (e.g., plastic, urethane, and rubber). Clearly, establishing a comprehensive recycling system for those materials would help prevent the depletion of underground resources. In this article of the JFS Newsletter, we will introduce the efforts of "With Kaiho Co.," a company in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture (Chubu region on Honshu, Japan's main island). The company produces a product line called "Treasure Chairs," chairs for office use reproduced from difficult-to-recycle car seats.

The Japanese government enacted the Law for the Recycling of End-of-Life Vehicles (commonly known as Automobile Recycling Law) in January 2005. Various vehicle components can be recycled, but car seats pose special problems. Shredding generates substantial waste car seats as they are made from a variety of materials, including urethane, fabric, and plastic, and dismantling and recycling them would require considerable time and expense. Meanwhile, it is important to note that waste landfill sites all over the country are about to reach full capacity. Incidentally, one out of ten used car seats can still be reused as a car seat.

Generally, car seats are better designed than normal chairs, in order to minimize fatigue, as people usually sit for long hours while driving. Thus, car seats are often designed ergonomically, using plenty of high-quality materials. To With Kaiho it simply did not make sense to discard used car seats, developed and manufactured at high cost.

To produce Treasure Chairs, the company recycles car seats supplied by Kaiho Sangyo Co., its parent company in the business of scrapping cars and recycling car parts. A seat with a reclining mechanism and headrest can be used as-is. After being cleaned, the seat is attached to a chair base with a gas-pressure spring mechanisms and caster wheels. Since seat specifications can vary even in the same car model, Treasure Chairs are manually assembled with care, one by one. About 500 units of the standard model have been sold for three years since 2003.

Some chairs have seat height adjustment and lumbar support. At additional cost, the company attaches armrests or changes seat fabric. You can also have your own car seat recycled into a chair, to enjoy the memory of your favorite car. Besides office chairs, chairs are also made especially for elderly people who prefer traditional tatami flooring in Japan. A swivel base at the bottom allows the user to turn 360 degrees. With casters at the rear of the base, the user can move the chair easily. Many users have expressed satisfaction with Treasure Chairs, saying "I couldn't believe how comfortable it is," and "The chair has definitely improved my work efficiency."

Beginning in fiscal 2008, the company will donate part of its revenues from the Treasure Chairs to afforestation activities and launch a "Trees Growing from Cars" campaign. Trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) as they grow. Thus, through this campaign, the company aims to help make its industry carbon-neutral by offsetting CO2 emissions from cars.

Mr. Norihiko Kondo, CEO of Kaiho Sangyo and With Kaiho, says "The 21st century will be a time of resource conservation. Our focus is shifting from simply scrapping cars to creating resources and recycling parts. To establish a sustainable economy, we should make better use of resources at hand, that is, used products and waste, instead of relying on underground resources." He adds, "In an animal, for example, blood circulates through arteries and veins to maintain the balance in the body. In Japan, we often compare the manufacturing industry to arteries and the recycling industry to veins. The smooth circulation of blood, or resources, through the industrial world is fundamental to a sustainable economy. As a player in the "vein" part of industry, we will work hard to help create a recycling-based society."

Mr. Kondo also serves as the director of the RUM Alliance (Re-Use Motorization Alliance), a non-profit organization of 29 car recycling companies in Japan, and leads various activities for the creation of a sustainable society. On May 8, 2006 the organization hosted an international recycling meeting called "JAPAN '06 for THE CAR" in Tokyo, in collaboration with United Nations agencies such as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations. At the meeting it was clearly stated that serious consideration should be given to recycling end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) on a global basis as the modern auto market expands worldwide. Participants confirmed that the economic impact of the "vein" industries on the "artery" industries would increase in importance in national and international markets.

Meanwhile, participants reaffirmed that the concepts "mottai-nai," which carries the meaning of "waste not, want not," and "from competition to collaboration" have universal significance. They also reaffirmed that the problems caused by increasing numbers of ELVs should be addressed not only by manufacturers and their host countries but also by all those who benefit from automobiles, including international organizations, governments, auto makers, recycling industries and users.

In 2007 the organization aims to establish a certification system for Automobile Recycling Technicians (tentative title). In a clear departure from the national qualification framework for auto mechanics, the testing for automobile recycling technicians will demand overall knowledge about the environment, such as the situation regarding carbon dioxide emissions, environmental pollution, and the depletion of natural resources.

A training center for recycling technicians will be established in Kanazawa, and there are plans to encourage business partners from overseas to get involved. Training courses will be launched at the center in May 2007, and the first certification testing will come within a year. Mr. Kondo says, "We hope people will appreciate how much auto recycling is contributing to make this a resource recycling society. Our aim is to have this system for automobile recycling technicians regarded as a respected certification system."

The Earth's natural resources are finite. As the significance of resources and energy are being seen in a new light worldwide today, waste is increasingly been seen as a resource. Indeed, we are now beginning to realize that there is no waste in natural Earth systems. Today, With Kaiho Co. and Kaiho Sangyo Co. treat ELVs as resources, and are working to utilize them in the best possible way. We believe they are on a solid path toward the fulfillment of their vision.

(Written by Kazuko Futakuchi)