November 14, 2008


Public Participation in Recycling Ceramics "Taking Off in Japan"

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.74 (October 2008)

Yakimono, a general term for traditional Japanese ceramic products, involves kneading clay into the shape of a container and then baking it. It is called "setomono" in eastern Japan and "karatsumono" in the west, and many local areas nationwide have their own unique styles and technical variations.

The main materials used in making ceramics are quartz, feldspar, clay, and kaolin. Feldspar is one of the primary materials vitrified -- which is conversion into glass or a glass-like substance -- by heating it alone or with other substances. Ceramic items made of clay with less feldspar are called pottery, while those made with more feldspar are classified as porcelain.

While pottery absorbs water, porcelain does not, and high-quality porcelain is highly translucent. Because both pottery and porcelain are hard, inflexible, and excellent in their properties of heat resistance and insulation, they are used to make not only tableware but also refractory (fireproof) materials, tiles, bricks, and sanitary ceramic items, including toilet bowls. As well, so-called fine or advanced ceramics are widely used in automobile parts, precision instruments, chemical machinery, and machine tools, etc.

The advantages of ceramic materials being hard and inflexible are, at the same time, their downside, which makes them prone to being easily chipped or broken. In Japan, broken and/or discarded ceramics are categorized as non-combustible waste and usually end up in landfills. It is estimated that the amount of ceramic waste thrown out in Japan is approximately 150,000 tons per year, which is nearly 5 percent of all non-combustible waste.

A notable development in many ceramics-producing areas in Japan recently is the various activities being launched to recycle discarded ceramic tableware back into new tableware.

Efforts to recycle discarded ceramics first started in the area where Minoyaki tableware is produced, centering around the city of Tajimi in Gifu Prefecture and extending out to the cities of Toki, Mizunami, and Kani. Minoyaki-style ceramics began to be produced in the late Heian era (794 - 1185 AD) and became popular in the Muromachi era (1336 - 1573 AD) along with the spread of Chanoyu (traditional Japanese tea ceremony).

After the Meiji era (1868 - 1912 AD), the modern mass production system was developed, which helped increase the production of ceramics in the area. Presently, around half of all tableware used in Japan is manufactured there.

In 1997, the Gifu Prefectural Ceramics Research Institute launched its Green Life 21 Project -- which focuses on recycling used ceramic materials -- together with nine local companies that responded to the call from the institute. Some of the motivation behind launching the project was the fact that local industries shared the same pressing concerns of the need to conserve materials for making ceramics -- such as quartz, feldspar, clay, and kaolin -- which are all becoming rarer, and the need to revitalize depressed local industries being threatened by low-priced ceramics imported from other countries. In order to address these concerns, the project was started with a view towards supporting a ceramics-producing industry that could continue successfully on into the 21st century, which some are calling the century of the environment.

Under the slogan "Tableware to Tableware," the project started working on collecting used ceramic tableware and recycling it into new products, branded as "Re-Tableware," in collaboration with about 30 local companies, a university, research institutes, and local governments in Gifu Prefecture. Participating companies range from raw material suppliers that pulverize and de-air clay, to manufacturers, wholesalers, and waste treatment companies. Under the pilot project, the items accepted for collection are limited to used tableware, because of the human health protection features guaranteed by product standards under the Food Sanitation Law that regulates the exclusion of hazardous substances.

First, the collected ceramic tableware is crushed into fine particles in a huge grinding mill. The resulting material, called "scherben" in the Japanese ceramics industry, is mixed with pottery clay at a ratio of 20 percent or more, and then shaped into new tableware and fired at high temperatures above 1,250 degrees Celsius, making warm-looking and homey-type dishes of Re-Tableware.

It was in 1999 that the Re-Tableware product series first appeared on store shelves. In October 2002, a department store in Tokyo organized an event to collect used ceramic tableware as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations. During the seven-day event, more than 2,000 people brought in their used dishes from home, and the collected tableware amounted to five tons.

The event was a good opportunity to significantly enhance the promotion of Re-Tableware products. After winning the 2001 Good Design Award under the Ecology Design Prize category, the Re-Tableware product series went on to win the 2003 Good Design Award under the New Frontier Design category. Also, in 2004, the series obtained the Japanese Eco-Mark certification from the Japan Environment Association as the first product under the household commodity (ceramics) category that the association set -- a world first. Meanwhile, organizations wanting to support the project -- such as organic cafes, organic food home delivery companies, non-profit organizations, citizen groups, and local governments -- popped up one after another, and they began collecting used or end-of-life tableware and/or use Re-Tableware products. In addition, the recycled-content products are used at some schools when serving students lunch.

2001 Ecology Design Prize, Good Design Award

Used tableware collection sites and places where Re-Tableware products are sold are also growing nationwide. People that once stored their unused ceramic dishes in their cupboards, unless they were broken or cracked, are now increasingly turning them in for recycling to be made into Re-Tableware products.

During the Group of Eight (G8) Summit, held in Toyako, Hokkaido, in July 2008, products from the Re-Tableware product series were displayed in Japan's Zero-Emissions House, which aimed to showcase the country's outstanding energy saving and environmental technologies to Japanese and foreign news media. One of the product sets was actually used at a tea party hosted by Kiyoko Fukuda, wife of then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

Yoshikazu Hasegawa, a senior research specialist with the Gifu Prefectural Ceramics Research Institute, said that recycling used ceramics is a manufacturing process that requires consumers to play a key role. Normally, manufacturers produce products, which consumers purchase and then discard after use, but he said that manufacturers and consumers need to cooperate in forming more of an interactive relationship, instead of the predominant one-way relationship. Public awareness of the option of recycling ceramics, instead of throwing them out, triggers real action among consumers to participate in recycling their old tableware. Moreover, consumers requesting manufacturers to do things like raising the ratio of recycled and crushed ceramic content, or producing new products with an easy-to-wash design, encourages them to create new technologies and designs, which leads to forming a virtuous cycle that will lead to the Re-Tableware product line gaining further popularity.

One of the recycling efforts of a local citizens' organization has already grown into a nationwide activity. Starting as a project to promote the recycling of used tableware in the Tama district of Tokyo in 2004 -- arising from concerns of new waste landfill construction that would cause destruction of animal and plant habitat, due to the shrinking capacity of existing landfills -- it has grown into a nationwide network of citizens promoting the recycling of ceramic tableware, in partnership with industry, local governments, and academia.

Initiatives have been launched in many major ceramics-producing regions in Japan to recycle end-of-use or discarded tableware and low-quality materials left over from production processes. A good example is the program started in the town of Arita, in Saga Prefecture, focused on recycling its famous white porcelain, called Arita-yaki (also known as Imari porcelain), which was previously considered difficult to do.

Another was started in the city of Seto in Aichi Prefecture, which is famous for its Seto-yaki, where the city government and local ceramics industry association have been working together to collect used ceramic tableware since the spring of 2004. Also, young ceramic artists in the prefectures of Ibaraki and Tochigi, famous for their Kasama-yaki and Mashiko-yaki, have demonstrated growing interest in environmental conservation and will start study sessions on recycling programs in December 2008.

Yoshikazu Hasegawa pointed out three challenges with recycling end-of-life ceramic materials. The first is how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from production processes to decrease the environmental impacts of the ceramics industry, in a move towards a low-carbon society.

To achieve this, he said, the ratio of crushed ceramics used in production materials should be increased to 50 or even 70 percent from the current level of 20 percent, and the technology has to be developed to produce ceramics at a lower firing temperature. Moreover, besides recycling mass-produced ceramic materials, it is necessary to promote the reuse of materials by doing things such as establishing a deposit system, which would be a move towards finally modernizing the ceramics industry and incorporating the concept of de-materialization.

The second challenge is to produce ceramics while also contributing to local environmental protection. For instance, ceramics producers could purchase plants and leaves cut during the conservation of "satoyama" woodlands to utilize as glazing materials. At the same time, they could help with funding conservation activities, meaning they can also contribute indirectly to the conservation of the local natural environment. The third challenge is how to pass on the Japanese sense of value to future generations through the traditions of the nation's ceramic arts, as it has long provided a spiritually rich and affluent medium to show the changing seasons of the year and promote happy family lives in the sharing of meals.

The things we use in our daily lives reflect our culture, which has always been strongly influenced by nature and history. It is hoped that this sense of value in the traditions of Japanese ceramics -- enhanced by the novel idea of recycling ceramic materials and the introduction of the Re-Tableware product lines -- will be accepted and spread throughout the world.

(Written by Kazumi Yagi)