Nakadai: A Waste Plant Re-designing the Ecosystem of Consumerism

Today, so much of our discussion takes place in the field of creation and design. While most of us are aware that there are serious shortages in resources such as water and fossil fuels, we seem to be somewhat successful in purchasing things and ignore to understand what is actually taking place in the world of waste.

That is perhaps the reason why, when we visit Nakadai, an industrial waste processing company, we are stunned for so many reasons. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Nakadai, who leads his sixty or so employees in a city called Maebashi, we at Re:public and some of our friends and partners, were able to have an extensive visit to the factory a week ago.

The day at Nakadai starts at 9:30. In a small warehouse, people who run second-hand or recycle shops would come and drop their stuffs. In turn they will bid for things like desks and chairs, filling the truck that has become empty.

Such reuse business is not an ordinary landscape for industrial waste companies. While most companies concentrate on how cost-effectively they could get rid of the waste, Nakadai has constantly focused on how much they could reuse or recycle the materials and products that come into their hands.

And as we look through the warehouse, we notice that the entire place is amazingly tidy. The place almost contradicts with the term ‘waste’, and is filled with office desks, cabinets, chairs, and even expensive design sofas, which look perfectly usable.

When we asked who comes and buys these office desks, an interesting and surprising episodes were heard. According to one bidder who runs the second-hand furniture shop, small to midsize companies, they ask to get old and used models whenever they hire newly graduates. Because the newcomer is the least experienced, naturally they should not be the ones to get the newest and cleanest desks. And in order to make sure every one works in a same, old, used desks, companies specifically seek to buy such models from his shop.

Mr. Nakadai is also filled with an eye-opening facts which makes us realize how the world of consumerism is working today. For instance, he described to us how returned products are often dealt with. According to him, most clothes, once they are returned to a shop for whatever reasons, are thrown away.

Interestingly, same type of clothes are thrown away at the particular time of the year. For instance, ceremonial clothes, which are worn by parents celebrating their children’s graduation, are brought in to his warehouse once the graduation season is over. This means that those parents would wear these clothes once, and then would return the clothes so that they have a perfectly new clothes for the special day but yet will save money. In such way, he knows there are dark sides in today’s system around consumerism and its ecosystem.

We also saw boxes of toilet papers (‘we have six tons of toilet papers here,’ Mr. Nakadai explained), all of which looked in a mint condition except boxes were slightly torn. Damage of these particular boxes were caused by a heavy snow in a warehouse where they were stored before distribution. Once boxes are damaged, regardless of the condition inside, they become unsellable as damaged boxes would risk the quality of what is inside upon distribution. As a result, most companies in such cases would claim these damages to the insurance companies, and ‘throw away’ these products. The fact that these products became the target of insurance policy means that these products cannot be sold; and often, although they are perfectly usable, they are simply burned.

Mr. Nakadai, whose previous job was in stock brokering and saw how some industries many things work in vain, he felt that he should do something about this awful notion of waste. That is why when these perfectly usable wastes are found, he would try to bid cheaper than the rest of the waste companies who would simply burn. Once these products are brought into his factory, staffs would carefully disseminate products by materials. The result is an amazing rate of recycling: Every month, you can check the recycling rates from their website. According to the information on their blog, in September 2014, the total percentage of recycling was a stunning ratio of 99.3%.

His staffs at Nakadai are well trained and skilled in knowing what materials things are made out of. In particular, what interested us was their expertise on plastics. Mr. Nakadai said that his staffs could tell what materials each waste is made out of by knowing how they are used. Depending on whether the shampoo bottle was for women or men, you could have a rough assumption which plastic materials were used. Another example was plastic films, if they were used for making flower bouquets, they are extremely transparent and the staffs could tell they are most probably not polyethylene, the cheap and opaque plastic. This shows that although the staffs are skilled for processing waste, they are professionals in understanding what kind of products are made for whom and for what purpose. In other words, paying attention to the products that surround us in everyday lives make us better waste experts. A fascinating world where one’s everyday lives are directly connected with the world of profession in a waste industry.

According to Mr. Nakadai, it takes any person to master plastics approximately two years. In the beginning staffs would train themselves by burning a small fragment and smelling them: The scent of burned plastics are unique thus it becomes easy to distinguish. Depending on the transparency, durability, and usability (like a typical plastic bags would simply stretch, but snack pouches are made out of particular plastic materials so that one could use hands to open), manufacturers would use different kinds of plastics, which are often either Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene (PE), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Once they are identified, staffs would carefully break products apart and sort them into different containers. In the world of recycling, 20 tons is the minimal unit for trade. Once any material would reach up to 20 tons, they will become tradable and would be sold to make another product.

What we learned on that day was that there are increasingly waste that is brought from the industry, most of them are not even sold or used to the final customer. Take shampoo for example. One company produces shampoo liquids in Europe and bottles in Asia. Both are imported to Japan to become a final product to be sold in Japanese market, however, often there are ‘hick-ups’ or ‘glitches,’ between the amount of liquids and bottles. While most of us consumers would simply think that the remaining bottles can be filled with the shampoo liquids once the next shipping is made, most companies would simply throw them away so that there will not be a storage cost, which could easily reach up to hundreds and thousands of dollars due to the amount they deal with. Naturally in the factory we saw countless shampoo bottles. Totally clean, unused, yet to be trashed.

After the factory tour, everyone was offered a chair, a broken laptop, and a set of screwdrivers. With a friendly and knowledgeable lady, there we started dismantling laptops. “Find screws. Unscrew everyone of them as soon as you see them.” said the lady, and we became totally immersed to the process. Some of them were super-fast, some of them were slow. But eventually we realised that this was due to the type of laptops that some had to tackle with. I would not mention the brand, but some of the most up-to-date laptops, which were considered as small, light, and beautiful, were extremely hard to dismantle as different materials were put together so tightly that there was no way but to tear them apart. By moving our hands, we learned so much more about what is behind the beautiful products we buy.

The entire factory was filled with all kinds of sensorial stimuli. The factory was filled with all kinds of smells, from liquid soaps, to plastics. It was interesting that I could tell which part I could comfortably step in, while other parts not. As the day went by, we even had an opportunity to work on dismantling laptops of all brands. As an ethnographic researcher who finds fieldwork an ultimate joy, the factory offered so much sensorial inputs I wish I could experience in every field.

Nakadai tour and dismantling workshops are available for anyone, and although they do not offer the tour in English, I am sure there is something that anyone take from the tour to the factory. They also have showrooms in Shinagawa, and also organizes design workshops using beautiful plastics from stripping off LAN cables.

Professor Kun Pyo Lee, who was until recently the head of design center at LG Electronics and today the master of ID at KAIST, Korea, mentioned in a workstyle magazine called Worksight that today we are at ‘Design 3.0′: He describes if Design 1.0 was about the shape, Design 2.0 was about recognition, recognizing the power of design and use it to solve problems. With Design 3.0, the role of designers is to create an ecosystem or a platform of co-creation. Nakadai is without doubt a design company, where they are taking an initiative to transform the dark side of today’s consumerism into a working cycle of creation.

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