How accurate is our understanding of the word “reuse”?
In English, the word “reusing” clearly implies “using a product again” in its current form. Recycling, on the other hand, involves breaking a product down into its essential components and then utilizing those raw materials to create something else. The situation is somewhat muddled in Japan, however, where our now-ubiquitous used-goods outlets are typically called risaikuru shoppu (lit. “recycling shops”)—though they are in fact “reusing shops.” As a result, these terms are still widely misunderstood.
This article will address trends in reuse policies, initiatives at Chuo University, and the economic significance of both.
Japan passed its Basic Act on Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society with the aim of creating a more recycling-oriented culture. The legislation defines (1) curbing waste output (reducing) as its top priority, followed by (2) reusing, (3) recycling, (4) heat recovery, and (5) proper disposal.
Looking at the broader history of waste treatment in Japan, however, it has been actually developed firstly for (5) proper disposal, followed by (4) heat recovery and then (3) recycling. As the result, specific laws promoting reducing and recycling have yet to be enacted.
It was in this context that the Fourth Basic Environment Plan was established via Cabinet decision in April 2012, for the first time mentioning the creation of a favorable market environment for reuse-focused businesses with the aim of transforming the way people actually live. Parallel to this was the FY2010 establishment of the Product Reuse Promotion Project Research Committee 1, on which I serve as a member.
The committee looks at the outcomes of pilot projects, defines challenges and issues, and evaluates countermeasures in order to help shape future policies and measures related to product reuse and similar initiatives.
As part of my work with the environment program under the Faculty Linkage Program (FLP) at Chuo University2, I am holding the first seminars in the country to feature action research into reuse-related activities.
Last year, we worked in collaboration with the city of Hachioji to create the first “reuse market.” This was a matching event that used project-based learning (PBL) to transform items that graduates no longer needed into essential supplies for incoming students3. There have been many similar plans put forth by environmental clubs and university co-ops in the past, but this was the first initiative in Japan where a government body actually teamed up with a university. The event attracted widespread attention, even getting news coverage on a variety of major media outlets.
The project-based learning setup required that students take charge of several steps prior to holding the reuse market. They had to propose a plan to Hachioji City; hold interviews with the Ministry of the Environment, private companies, and others; negotiate with the authorities at Chuo University, analyze and report on the outcomes of the project once it was completed, and so on—with faculty members simply participating as advisors. It was astonishing to see how much the seminar students grew over the course of the year.
This academic year, the students will move beyond Hachioji to work with the cities of Hino and Tama as well. The expanded scale will cover almost all Chuo University students living alone. The Ministry of Environment has also selected our initiative as a Product Reuse Pilot Project 4. Naturally, this is also the first time in Japan that a university has participated in this kind of pilot project. This year’s event will not be possible without the help of the Chuo student base in collecting unwanted items from graduates, signing up volunteers, and other tasks. For more information, visit the Chuo University Reuse Market website5.
How can we interpret reuse in the context of economics?
Past efforts to promote reuse have met with opposition from manufacturers and retailers, who believe that it would stifle demand for new products. However, household appliance mass retailers and volume booksellers that deal in both new and used goods have instead found a synergistic effect, whereby used-goods purchases actually spark demand for new items. Plenty of these initiatives have therefore been found to lead to increased sales.
Encouraging reuse means transitioning from a flow economy that progresses from mass production to mass consumption and then mass disposal (recycling) to a stock economy where used goods are kept in service for an extended period of time. Hidden within this transition is the potential to help address the issue of limited resources that plagues our current century. Persistent deflation in the Japanese economy has created a culture where we use low-cost new items only for a short while, and this may be our chance to turn the tide on our eroding sense of frugality—our natural aversion to wastefulness as captured in the Japanese phrase mottainai.
Typically, used-goods markets suffer from the gap between the “usage value” in the mind of the first user, who feels that an item is still useable though they no longer need it, and the “product value” in the second user, who wants to use the item even if they have to pay for it. Because people often find that they cannot sell off their useable unwanted items, they end up not being reused and going into the garbage. With the Reuse Market at Chuo University, we are hoping to measure the effects of closing this gap through our MOE pilot project.
Reuse research encompasses challenges that cause us to rethink our economic principles—such as whether one of the foundations of modern economics, the impossibility of comparing utilities among individuals, also applies to reuse, and whether reuse can breathe life back into our communities and lead to the accumulation of social capital. Promoting reuse could also create new demand for repairs or reforms, which in turn could help revitalize the economy.
Still, research on reuse economics has only just begun.