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Used Tickets Target of New Recycling Efforts

November 28, 1997

A ton of train tickets can be recycled into 6,000 rolls of toilet paper. (Photo: East Japan Railway Co.)

Railway companies in Japan are beginning to recycle used tickets, rather than dispose of them by incineration as they have in the past. Although the magnetic material on the back of the tickets was once viewed as a stumbling block to recycling, recyclers are developing new ways to reuse this magnetic backing in a variety of products, such as wallpaper and outer-wall materials. It looks as though the recycling movement, which is percolating through corporate Japan as companies diligently separate recyclable office paper from the rest of their trash, has now spread to train tickets. Trains account for 30% of passenger transport in Japan--second to automobiles, with 60%--but the nation still boasts the highest train ridership in the world. The reuse of the materials that go into train tickets is therefore attracting plenty of attention.

From Tickets to Toilet Paper
When tickets are recycled, they are usually used to make toilet paper. Each month in the Tokyo metropolitan area, East Japan Railway Co. generates about 45 tons of used tickets, all of which it recycles into toilet paper. First, the used tickets are collected at a ticket administration center in Tokyo's Minato Ward. From there they are shipped in bulk to a recycler, a paper company in the city of Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture. A growing number of publicly operated subways and private railways are also recycling tickets in this manner. The transportation bureau of the city of Fukuoka, which generates about 52.3 million used tickets each year, started recycling the tickets into toilet paper this past June. This allows the bureau to supply about 60% of the toilet paper used in station restrooms.

A ton of tickets yields about 6,000 rolls of toilet paper. The railway companies can purchase this toilet paper at low cost to use in the restrooms at stations, aboard special express trains, and so on. "Ultimately, it's cheaper to recycle the tickets than to spend money on incinerating them," said one Kyushu Railway Co. official.

In the past, passengers entering a station would present their tickets to a station employee, who would stamp or punch the ticket, and passengers would hand the ticket to another employee at their destination stop. But most stations nowadays are equipped with automated ticket gates, and tickets are now backed with magnetized film to be checked by the machines. Before the tickets are recycled into toilet paper, the magnetic layer needs to be separated from the paper. This operation requires a special technology, which only a few paper companies in Japan have. Railway companies trying to recycle their tickets have been plagued by the scarcity of contractors to do the separation work and by the high cost.

Bringing the Process In-House
This dilemma has prompted some railway companies to develop their own unique recycling methods. A private railroad headquartered in Osaka has an arrangement with a pulp manufacturer in Ehime Prefecture that makes old tickets into home building materials such as outer-wall materials and wallpaper. This pulp company has a way of incorporating the magnetic backing into these products, rather than discarding the backing. In fact, the company asserts that the products actually come out looking better when the magnetic material is used as an ingredient. Because the pulp company buys the used tickets from the railroad company, this arrangement serves as a secondary revenue source for the railway--an added bonus.

And a private railroad company in Nagoya has teamed up with one of its affiliates to develop a technique for recycling old tickets into envelopes and business cards. The magnetic backing is chopped into pieces, mixed with the paper, and melted. By adding a special solvent, it is possible to create new paper. Using this technique, the railroad company can recycle into envelopes 7% of the approximately 130 million used tickets (about 74 tons) that it collects each year. The company ultimately plans to recycle all of its used tickets into stationery, business cards, and other supplies for the 294 companies in its corporate group.

Meanwhile, a subway sytem in Tokyo is using the ashes generated by incinerating used tickets to make cement and concrete, which are used in walkway construction.

New Tickets, New Problems
But now the train companies face a new challenge. The arrival of automated ticket gates has paved the way for the creation of many new kinds of tickets, such as prepaid cards and card-type multiple-trip tickets. And new kinds of tickets mean new kinds of trash. Since Nagoya's transportation bureau placed used-ticket collection boxes at train ticket gates, it has been recovering four tons of card-type tickets annually. While Tokyo's subway system generates about a ton of ordinary paper tickets a day, it sells about 5.8 tons of subway passes, prepaid cards, and other card-type tickets daily. Polyester is used to make these card-type tickets, and at this time, almost all subway companies dispose of the used cards by incinerating them. And because these card-type tickets and passes are returned to the passenger after passing through the automated ticket gates, unlike regular tickets, it is the passengers who are left with the task of disposing of the tickets after they are used up.

According to a spokesman for the subway system, "At this time, our only option is to cut up the cards and incinerate them." However, the aforementioned railroad company in Nagoya is currently researching the possibility of saving the polyester portion of the tickets and recycling it into material for work clothes.

As more and more ticket gates are automated, more new kinds of tickets continue to be created. The railways, facing the challenge of recycling more new kinds of trash, are eagerly awaiting the development of revolutionary recycling technologies.

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