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How Japan Is Advancing the Virtuous Circle of Environmental Protection and Economic Growth

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Technological innovation and globalization have opened up seemingly limitless economic opportunity in every corner of the world. Yet the unprecedented pace of change has also created serious challenges, including environmental degradation, economic marginalization and the rise of extremism. In today’s integrated world, these issues need to be addressed by all nations, developed and developing, with all of society’s stakeholders shaping the solutions. Members of the United Nations demonstrated the international community’s resolve to address such challenges by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, including eco-friendly initiatives.

As economic development progresses so do environmental concerns, including the increase in waste and energy consumption. Balancing environmental protections with economic growth has long been considered a zero sum game: Pro-environmental initiatives were often viewed as costly and requiring government intervention.

Times have changed: Green development through innovation is now considered a business opportunity—and Japanese companies investing in green innovations are thriving: Japanese manufacturers have developed transparent solar cells that double as windows and plastic that can biodegrade even in the ocean. Renewable batteries can now provide high-output power, even at night or in bad weather, and zero-net energy housing is also being developed.

As 20 major economic powers gather in Osaka in 2019 for the G20 summit, Japan is promoting public and private partnerships to accelerate the virtuous circle of environmental preservation and economic development.

Rapid economic development has resulted in worldwide urbanization, which has in turn fueled the need for proper waste management. Japan has promoted efficient waste disposal since the 1960s and, thanks to pro-environmental measures, successfully reduced household and industrial waste since 2000. Now it is sharing its solutions with developing countries.

From Waste to Resources: Improving Waste Management in Sri Lanka

JICA Kataragama
Yoko Onuma (third from left) working with local waste management officers in Kataragama. JICA/Yusuke Abe

In Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, 800 tons of garbage was sent to the Meethotamulla landfill every day. Last year, a landslide at the site killed 32 people and displaced hundreds more. Unregulated dumping has led to serious environmental and health problems at landfill sites across Sri Lanka.

To address the crisis, Japanese representatives are working to shore up unsecured disposal sites and stop illegal dumping, while also educating about recycling and composting.

JICA Compost
Organic waste unloaded at a local waste treatment facility for composting. JICA/ReEB Project 2018

Yoko Onuma of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has worked with Sri Lanka’s Central Environmental Authority to establish low-cost, low-maintenance and low-environmental-impact landfill facilities. Based on the results of pilot programs in three regions, JICA is publishing manuals that promote responsible waste management practices.

“JICA has been supporting Sri Lanka’s waste management sector through various projects since the late ’90s,” says Onuma. “Based on our suggestions, the National Solid Waste Management Support Center was established. It assists with projects like compost yards, landfills, solid-waste-management training programs for officers and workers, and promotion of the three R’s [reuse, reduce and recycle]. JICA has also dispatched volunteers who improve the situation on a more grassroots level.”

A decade ago, composting was implemented in fewer than a dozen localities. Today, 120 of Sri Lanka’s 335 districts compost. With support from JICA, Kawashima, a Japanese distributor of composting equipment has brought its technology to Sri Lanka to help transform organic waste into fertilizer. By December, Kawashima’s screw-type compost facilities will be installed in several provinces.

From Impossible to Possible: Biodegradable Plastic

Biodegradable Plastic
Example uses of “Kaneka Biodegradable Polymer PHBH”.

Waste management has become a major international issue and consumers are increasingly conscious of the impact of microplastics on marine ecosystems. In response, a number of major global brands have announced plans to eliminate single-use plastic straws. Addressing growing social demand, leading Japanese manufacturer Kaneka Corporation developed a biodegradable polymer (PHBH).

“Our biodegradable polymer is 100 percent plant-derived,” the company explains. “It decomposes by the actions of tiny microorganisms that break it down into water and carbon dioxide in natural environments, like soil or seawater.”

Although biodegradable plastics have long been considered more fragile than traditional plastics, according to Kaneka PHBH is quite durable under normal conditions. The company’s technology is now used in compost bags and demand is expected to increase dramatically in the next few decades, especially in the food-service industry. Kaneka announced in the summer of 2018 that it was increasing production of biodegradable polymers to five times their current levels: “We are aiming to provide solutions through technological innovation on global issues with research and development as the driving force. We think the environment is the most important issue facing the world, and we are working to realize a sustainable society.”

Overcoming Weakness: Creating a Stable Supply of Renewable Energy

See-through Solar Energy
Skylight application of See-Through Solar Panels at Amagasaki Sosei Senior High School. Taiyo Kogyo Corporation

Although solar energy is increasingly popular, commercial structures like offices and museums still have to follow specific building codes, limiting installation sites for solar panels. What if we could double or triple the space for solar panels by enabling the roof and windows themselves to generate electricity? Transparent solar cells developed by Kaneka do just that—and demand is increasing in Europe, Asia and the U.S.

“These See-Through Solar Panels can be used like glass and installed in a window or skylight,” says Kaneka. “In addition, because the panels block most heat but allow light, they reduce the need for energy to cool the building. The solar panels combine clean energy with energy saving.”

The amount of electricity generated by renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power fluctuates based on the weather, season and time of day. On the other hand, the demand for electric power fluctuates depending on, for example, the season and time of day. A high-capacity battery is critical to providing a steady supply and maintaining a balance between energy supply and demand. NGK Insulators, a Japanese manufacturer, developed the NAS battery (sodium [Na] and sulfur [S]). It’s the first commercial battery system with the capacity to store megawatt-hours of electricity—enough to supply energy to thousands of homes each day.

NAS battery in Dubai
A NAS® plug-and-play battery system in Dubai. The containerized design expedites transportation and installation.

“The batteries offer a large capacity, high-energy density and a long life,” explained Shigeru Kobayashi, senior vice president of NGK. “They can discharge seven hours of electric power, compared to just 30 minutes to two hours for general lithium ion batteries. They also offer triple the energy density of conventional lead-acid batteries at one-third the size. In other words, it can store large-capacity electric power in a very compact space.”

Since being brought to market in 2002, NGK’s NAS batteries have been installed in nearly 200 sites worldwide, even under severe conditions, including the intense heat of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the severe cold of Canada and remote areas like Réunion, an island off the coast of Africa.

Kobayashi believes the Middle East, in particular, could be a growing market.

“Investment in renewable energy, especially photovoltaic power generation, is rapidly advancing in the Middle East. Since solar power can only be generated during the day, there is a great need for an energy storage system that can work for long periods at night.”

A Future Standard: The Net-Zero Energy House

Net-zero energy house
Daiwa House’s net-zero energy housing.

The world population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, and global energy consumption will only increase to match. Daiwa House Industry, one of Japan’s largest homebuilder, has developed net-zero energy housing (ZEH), an energy-efficient and energy-self-sufficient innovation where the amount of energy used is matched or surpassed by the amount of renewable energy created. Daiwa House’s net-zero buildings are also resilient, providing energy and allowing life and business to continue even when power is suspended by natural disaster.

“When the Hokkaido earthquake caused widespread power outages and blackouts in the summer of 2018, customers who lived in our energy self-contained housing were able to secure basic electrical power,” said Katsuhiro Koyama, general manager of Daiwa House’s environment department.

Daiwa House
Daiwa House’s energy-self-sufficient offices, the first in Japan.

Earlier this year, Daiwa House opened its first energy-self-sufficient office, the first in Japan to use renewable energy, and is conducting experiments and verification testing there. Koyama adds that interest in the company’s energy-conserving housing is growing rapidly worldwide: “In February 2018, we expanded into Australia, where environmental laws are becoming stricter every year. Rawson Group, a Sydney-based home builder, has joined us and we are already in talks to adapt Daiwa House Industry’s technology there.”

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