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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Better Waste Disposal

Nov. 4, 2016

Disposal facilities in Japan are working hard to process the more than 380 million tons of industrial waste the country produces annually. But some communities are critical of their impact on the environment, so one woman has taken a stand by creating an innovative facility.

Noriko Ishizaka took over her father’s company in the town of Miyoshi, about an hour’s drive from Tokyo, 14 years ago. Since then, she’s been working hard to overhaul waste disposal and give the industry a cleaner image.

The company now employs 150 people, and generates more than 40 million dollars in sales. Every day, more than 300 trucks bring in about 1,000 tons of industrial waste.

All of the waste comes from demolished buildings, and contains a mix of gravel, rubble and wood, as well as steel and plastic. This type of waste is very difficult to process so it often ends up being dumped illegally.

"I really believe a company creates its own value when it decides to tackle waste that other companies can’t handle or find unmanageable," Ishizaka says.

The first step in the recycling process relies on heavy machinery to separate the waste into rough categories then materials that can be identified visually, such as wood, plastic or metal, are sorted by hand.

The next step is what sets this company apart -- an additional level of screening, using a range of specially developed tools. One sorting machine uses the power of suction. The waste is shaken to let paper and other light materials float to the top, where they’re sucked up by a powerful vacuum.

Another machine uses a magnet to catch nails and other small pieces of metal. The total length of the conveyor belt is an astounding 1.2 kilometers.

A typical company is said to reduce or recycle between 70 and 80 percent of the waste. Ishizaka's plant has raised this level to more than 95 percent.

"We see this plan as something that transforms waste into resources. Recently we were able to process or recycle 97 percent of the waste that came in. We owe such results to that mindset," Ishizaka says.

She is now a leading figure in the waste-processing industry, but the road to success was long and bumpy.

In 1970, industrial waste processing companies began converging on the area because of its proximity to Tokyo. Incineration was more common than recycling. At one point in the 1990s, the town had more than 50 smokestacks.

In 1999, media reported that vegetables in the area were heavily contaminated with dioxin. The bad news caused prices to drop sharply.

Later, the amount of dioxin detected was not high enough to cause health problems. Nevertheless, the waste processing forms were roundly criticized.

Ishizaka's company had already invested more than 13 million dollars in new equipment to prevent dioxin emissions. But since it was the largest in the area, its reputation took a hit.

Every day, the company faced calls to pack up and leave. At the time, Ishizaka worked in the administration office. She asked her father, who was then CEO, to appoint her to chief operating officer. In 2002, she succeeded him at the age of 30.

"People said they didn’t want us there anymore, so that meant we had to find a way of becoming essential to the community," Ishizaka says. "That’s when I decided to transform our business into something unlike any other company in the waste processing industry."

In a make-or-break challenge, Ishizaka remodeled the entire factory. At a time when the company's annual revenue was around 20 million dollars, she borrowed over 36 million dollars from more than 10 financial institutions and built an environmentally-friendly recycling plant. All of the waste processing was moved indoors to prevent dust and noise pollution.

Despite these measures, the residents remained suspicious. Some even speculated the company had moved its operations indoors because it had something to hide.

"We were investing large sums of money, so I sometimes wondered why people in the community were still unwilling to accept us. That's when I thought, maybe we should let them see with their own eyes what we were doing here on a daily basis," Ishizaka says.

She decided to spend another 1.8 million dollars to create an observation walkway through the facility and she then opened it to the public.

Nowadays, the plant welcomes about 10,000 visitors a year, including public officials and entrepreneurs from Japan and abroad.

"We're studying the possibility of building a plant with the same capability in Sao Paulo," says Celso Russomanno, a federal congressman from Brazil.

"I do lose confidence quite often. We sometimes get complaints and people tell me my ideas are crazy. But I made a clear choice. So what would I accomplish by quitting now? At this point, I'm determined to finish what I've started," Ishizaka says.

The plant occupies 16 hectares of land, 80 percent of which is covered by forest. Today the area is well tended, but it used to look very different. The forest was neglected and littered with illegally dumped waste.

Ishizaka rented the land from its owners and set about cleaning it up.

"I intentionally didn't buy the land. Instead, I decided to rent it in the hope of fostering a better long-term relationship with the local community. That’s how it all began," Ishizaka says.

The company even organizes eco-tours through the forest, and the public can enjoy some time off in a green area, with an open square and sports facilities.

Yutaka Sekiya owns part of the forest. His family has been farming the area for generations. The tremendous damage caused by the dioxin scandal 17 years ago led him to play a central role in the campaign to remove Ishizaka’s plant from the area.

"We even went to court to get the company evicted. But now, the CEO's vision and ethics are just fantastic. I believe our environment is what matters most. If it’s harmed in any way, I will rise up again to protect it," Sekiya says.

At the end of last year, a new building was completed on the company grounds. Ten thousand people, mainly from the local community, visit the site every year.

At last, the company once reviled had gained acceptance.

"The public needs to understand that the work is actually meaningful for society. I believe our mission is to create and promote an environment that allows people to reuse, reduce and recycle," Ishizaka says.