JAPAN: scenes of mass recycling among the rice-fields

We're in the middle of prime rice-growing country today, and even better it's not the kind you eat. Around here, in Hyogo Prefecture, they're growing rice to make saké, and we're promised that the odd glass of the local produce might just be available later, over dinner.

What we're here to see is Panasonic's Eco Technology Centre, or PETEC, the company's state of the art recycling facility for everything from TVs to washing machines, fridges and air-conditioning units. But if you're looking for a dark, satanic mill among the green and pleasant lands of rice-fields as far as you can see, you're going to be disappointed.

PETEC is another one of those long, low white Panasonic buildings, the company logo prominently displayed. You swing off the road just before the rather appropriately-named Heaven's Door cafe, with rice fields heading off into the distance to your left, and into an oasis of calm.

There's a traditional Japanese-style rock garden at the entrance, all white stones and rocks placed just so, and to the side little areas planted with trees where you can sit or walk.

For all the world this could be another hi-tech factory making TVs or vacuum cleaners or whatever; instead PETEC specialises in ripping, smashing and pounding used domestic appliances into oblivion, then using a wide variety of methods to extract as much of their raw materials for reuse or recycling.

You get an idea of all this as soon as you step into the lobby: there are tables made from glass and polished washing-machine drums, and garden sets you'd almost never guess are moulded in recycled plastics. This is PETEC front of house, where everyone from visiting journalists from across Europe to local groups and classes of schoolkids come to learn about the importance of recycling, and how well this facility carries it out.

What's more, PETEC is also a research institute, helping the designers of future Panasonic products make them easier to recycle at the end of their life.

Sit in the lecture-room here, watching a video full of babbling streams and an adoring Japanese mother caring for her almost impossible cute baby, and there's only the merest hint of industrial noises off.

But that's the idea: PETEC practises what it preaches, not only recycling thoroughly and efficiently, but doing so with minimal impact on its local environment. Noise- and vibration-proofing, and advanced filtering for air, dust and all manner of other noxious things, make it about as far removed from your average British scrapyard as it's possible to get.

PETEC is the only facility of this kind entirely funded by a single manufacturer, although Panasonic also has shares in other facilities across Japan, and some other electronics companies have partnered with existing recycling operations. It's been here since 2001, just about as long as Japanese law has required recycling of TVs, fridges, washers and air-conditioners, and at the moment things are booming here.

Thanks to a recent government eco-points system, giving consumers incentives to step up from old power-hungry appliances to new, greener models, and laws requiring consumers to pay for the recycling of old products, rather than just throwing them into landfill, PETEC is being kept busy. And the impending switchover to all-digital TV in Japan, due to be completed by this July, means the facility expects to handle upwards of 700,000 old sets this year.

Japanese law requires even this Panasonic-owned operation to accept products from all manufacturers: consumers wanting to junk a product can return it to a retailer, or have it picked up when the new one is delivered, and pay between £15 to have a small TV recycled and £40 for a large fridge-freezer, plus a collection charge.

From there the products go to manufacturers' collection points, and then on to places like PETEC, which consistent beats the requirements of the Home Appliance Recycling Law for the amount of material recovered and re-used from the hardware it processes.

We walk along gantries above the TV section, where sets are disassembled and sorted into their components with ruthless efficiency.

Flatscreen TVs are already forming a big part of the throughput here, but that digital switchover means there's a very busy line handling old CRT models – everything from fairly recent plastics-housed small-screen models to some older examples, complete with hardboard back-panels, that must date back decades rather than years.

A crane lifts them onto rollers, a small group of staff sets about them with power-drivers, and within seconds the glass tube, accounting for about 60% of the TV's weight, is extracted, and the other components sorted by type.

Those TV tubes are a problem: not only big and bulky, but actually made from two types of glass – one for the 'funnel', the other for the screen. PETEC used to use heat to separate the two, but these days a laser cuts the two apart before the different kinds of glass are crushed.

Processing of the screen part is handled here, extracting the chemicals used to form the image in these old sets, while the 'funnel' glass, which contains high amounts of lead, goes offsite for processing: PETEC's filtering is highly efficient, but it isn't taking any chances with a local water supply used for something as vital as saké!

In fact, most of this glass goes back into the making of more CRT TVs – yes, they're still made in some parts of the world – so the 'cutlets' of crushed glass tend to be exported to processors in those countries where that still happens.

Other new technology here replaces the old manual stripping of insulation from wires with a process using titanium oxide as a catalyst to turn the plastics into harmless gases, which can be drawn off to leave the metal behind.

It's just the latest in a remarkable array of technologies used to separate materials, from centrifuges and magnetic sorting, to those depending on eddy currents to sort copper from aluminium from plastic, or jets of air to sort really light components from only slightly less light ones.

And those washing machines, fridges and air-conditioners? Well, once any liquids are drawn off – salt-water in the case of some washing machines, using fearsome hydraulic 'jaws of death', rather more hazardous coolants from the fridges and freezers – the whole machine goes along a variety of conveyors, through those sound- and vibration-proof walls, and into monster shredders and crushers, able to reduce even the biggest domestic appliance into shrapnel in seconds.

It's too noisy for us to go into the crusher chamber, but we watch on closed-circuit TV screens as what looks like a giant liquidiser attacks a fridge hurled in from above, and crushing cogs apparently perfect for an action hero's nick of time escape crunch their way through a washing machine in the blink of an eye.

After that, all the sorting technology springs into action on the debris: here at PETEC they call it 'Treasure Hunting'. It's the constant hunt to get even more useful stuff from junked products, or what they describe as 'Precision Fractional Recovery'.

One day, hopefully, all scrap appliances will end their days this way, rather than rusting in peace. Though of course they won't all make it to the long, low, deceptively calm building just next to Heaven's Door.

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.