TOKYO - Recycling of PET bottles slowly but steadily is becoming big business in Japan. Besides commercial recycling efforts, individuals use empty bottles for many activities, some of questionable value. Along most Japanese streets, water-filled PET bottles are lined up against walls, bordering gardens or surrounding trees. The reason for this curious practice is the belief that the bottles ward off stray cats. The ubiquitous containers even have been used in toy rockets.
On a more practical level, a number of U.S. firms have been leading the move toward reuse of the bottles. McDonald's employees at 1,500 Japanese shops soon will wear some 4,000 coats lined with polyester fiber produced from recycled PET bottles. Recycled PET also is used in new products sold by Reebok and Levi Strauss in Japan. Sumitomo 3M is marketing kitchen scrub brushes.
Japanese companies are not far behind. Osaka-based Teijin Ltd., Japan's largest polyester producer, has used recycled PET fiber in company uniforms. Fibers from PET bottles also have found their way into padded shoe insoles.
Despite many recycling applications for PET bottles, only a small percentage are being recycled in Japan. It has one PET bottle recycling plant, which runs at less than a third of its capacity. Japan last year recycled only 5.5 million pounds of PET out of 330 million pounds used.
Local governments appear partly to blame. In Tokyo, where more than 10 percent of the nation's population lives or works, only 2 out of 23 wards separate PET bottles from other trash. That's not much better than the national figure of 5.4 percent. PET recycling can be successful. Musashino, a Tokyo suburb where a twice-weekly PET bottle collection was launched two years ago, now collects as much as 90 percent of all PET bottles used by city residences and businesses. But by April, a law will require PET bottle makers and sellers to collect used bottles.