Business & Economy Science & Technology Education & Society Sports & Fashion Arts & Entertainment
Top Picks Back Numbers Search

Paper Shortage Prompts Revival of Old Practices

June 5, 2000

Until 1997, used paper was piling up in Japanese warehouses, gathering dust. Now suddenly there is a shortage. Used paper consists mainly of newspapers gathered from households and elsewhere by paper wholesalers, who sell it to paper manufacturers as material for recycling. Now that paper manufacturers are stepping up their newspaper recycling in the interest of protecting forests, saving energy, and reducing the volume of trash, used newspapers are in great demand.

Once upon a time, before Japan's period of rapid economic growth made the nation rich, paper wholesalers offered consumers free toilet paper in exchange for their old newspapers. Small loudspeaker trucks wended their way through neighborhoods issuing the call: "Got any old newspapers? We'll give you toilet paper in return!" (The singsong delivery of this request made it sound much more melodious than the English words would indicate.) With prices for used newspapers on the rise, the loudspeaker trucks may become part of the streetscape once again.

The Rise and Fall of Paper Recycling
Until the 1970s, when Japan's economy started growing at a high rate and attracting plenty of foreign capital, old newspapers were a precious resource to be recycled, and operators of paper-collection businesses offered people toilet paper in return for them. But from the 1970s on, imports brought Japan a steady supply of low-priced pulp, the raw material for paper. Meanwhile, labor costs associated with used-paper collection had skyrocketed; this rendered the toilet-tissue-for-old-newspaper exchange uneconomical, and the practice all but died out.

In the 1990s, however, public concern over the environmental impact of large-scale deforestation grew. There was also increased concern over the volume of trash created by old newspapers discarded as household rubbish.

Recycling Targets Set
These conditions forced the paper manufacturing industry to go back to recycling newspaper. In 1995, the industry embarked on a technology development program aimed at increasing the paper-recycling rate (the percentage of the total volume of pulp that comes from recycled paper) to 56% by fiscal 2000. As a result of this program, the paper-recycling rate has steadily increased; the industry reached its target rate of 56% by 1999.

This increase in the paper-recycling rate is one of the factors that have turned a glut of old newspapers into a shortage. Another factor is a decrease in the volume of old newspaper collected. Because the economic slump has reduced demand for paper, old newspapers now only fetch a pittance from the paper wholesalers, who purchase it from collectors. Thus, though the low inventory would ordinarily be expected to increase incentives for paper collection, that has not been the case. In 1999, the volume of old newspaper collected was down 3% from 1997, the peak volume year. As a result, the used-paper inventory (which also includes corrugated cardboard) had plummeted to about 32,000 tons by the end of January 2000--a 75% drop from the end of April 1997, when the volume was at its highest.

Recycling Begins at Home
Every day, Japan throws away about 54 million newspapers. Over 93% of these newspapers are distributed to subscribers by agents of the newspaper companies under Japan's unique system of home newspaper delivery. Now that at least some of this vast quantity of used newspaper is worth money once more, the newspaper companies are being forced to organize recycling programs. Local citizens' associations and Parent Teacher Associations are forming their own used-paper collection channels, and the toilet-tissue-for-old-newspaper exchange business is showing signs of a revival too.

Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.