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October 2003

World's First Zero Waste Paper Recycling Plant
by Michelle Raymond

An industrial-looking channel directs water into a small pond in front of the new Corelex paper recycling plant in Kawasaki, Japan. The pond is home to a school of healthy goldfish. Visitors to the facility are told outright: “The smoke house (a small, attractive round wood structure) is used for parties – the fish are living in the plant’s discharge water...”

Indeed, the $150 million Corelex plant, built with the help of government loans, is the first “zero waste” paper recycling plant in the world, according to its developers.

Unlike many paper plants, which struggle over “stickies” and landfill growing mountains of sludge, this new plant can easily take all manner of mixed paper. Binders, paper with plastic clips, metal parts, and aseptic poly-coated paper is no problem. The only waste product is some ash, which is used for filler in a concrete product by another plant nearby.

The key, according to Tetra-Pak’s environmental engineer Robert Kawaratani, is the system soaks the incoming paper for longer periods than a standard hydra-pulper. In Japan, the government requires such plants getting help to become educational labs, complete with classrooms and tours for children of all ages.

The Corelex plant has a built-in classroom, numerous colorful brochures for children, and produced several videos that explain the whole process. However, unlike many commercial plants with glassed-in areas, visitors receive a genuine tour of the entire facility.

The baled material – ranging from poly-coated cups from Tokyo Disney to boxed confidential documents from big companies, are fed directly into the pulper in a lump, and then swelled while being matured to facilitate ink separation.

The material goes into a large tower where it is soaked for 12-14 hours. A rake system at the bottom pulls pulp out of the tower, and screens out contaminants. The San-Ei Regulator company designed the equipment.

The pulp is de-inked, sterilized, and bleached with hydrogen peroxide. The sludge is passed through a screw press to squeeze out much of the water, and then burned in a boiler at 800-900 degrees C. The energy from burning the sludge and the polyethylene from the aseptic material create energy to help run the plant.

Recovered material is transferred into a huge tissue maker, which runs a mile a minute. 

The plant can handle 250 tons per day but runs at 220 tons per day, making 150 tons of toilet paper daily. It cannot get enough of the higher quality aseptic feedstock, he says.

The rolls are cased in plastic, and then palletized by robots for storage. However, the product must be de-palletized and manually loaded because they don’t fit onto Japan’s small delivery trucks.

The plant runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a staff of about 100 employees.

Collection: Different than US
Unlike in the U.S., where there is almost no recycling of consumer polycoated and polystyrene, Japanese grocery stores collect these two materials, along with PET bottles, though they are only paid for the polycoat material, Kawaratani explains. Consumers carefully rinse, and then disassemble the cartons so they lie flat. “It’s easier to store them that way when you don’t have a lot of space,” he explains.

Based upon a voluntary agreement, PET bottles are all clear to facilitate recycling, though they have shrink-wrap labels. Many bottles are square to save space.

Each prefecture and local government collects differently, but Kawaratani says there is no single-stream collection. He notes that federal figures show that for fiscal year 2002, 30.63 million tons of paper were consumed, and 20 million tons were collected for recovery.

About 62% of PS foam is collected, though about 25% is recycled materially – the balance going for feedstock recycling and energy recovery.

While federal figures indicate a 14% recycling rate, sources say that when business recycling is counted, Japan is now sending about 30% of its waste for recycling and recovery nationwide.


The author can be reached at 301-345-4237 or by e-mail at michele@raymond.com. © 2003 Raymond Communications.

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