Kitakyushu: Japan’s True Eco-Town

A one-time center of the smokestack economy, Kitakyushu has reinvented itself
as a global pioneer in environmental technologies and lifestyles.

The city of Kitakyushu occupies a unique place in Japan’s economic history. After the central government selected Yahata, now in the north part of the city, as the site of Japan’s first blast furnace in 1901, what had been a collection of small fishing villages rapidly transformed into the cradle of Japan’s industrial revolution, built around coal and steel. Well-known firms like robotics leader Yaskawa Electric and ceramics maker TOTO trace their origins to Kitakyushu of the 1910s.

New industries like petroleum and plastics maintained Kitakyushu at the forefront of economic development as Japan embarked on post-WWII high growth. But the city paid a high price. Because of factory emissions, the local sea turned toxic enough to earn the name “the sea of death,” while the air was so foul that asthma and other bronchial problems were widespread among children and adults alike.

The situation was a paradoxical one. The residents of Kitakyushu recognized that the pollution that was making them sick was also making them better off, hence their dubbing the factory chimney smoke shiawase no kemuri— “the smoke of happiness.”

But it could not go on. During the 1950s, Kitakyushu’s mothers, concerned for the health of their children, banded together to educate themselves about pollution risks. After amassing the necessary data, they approached companies and local government about tackling the problem.

Such was the origin of the so-called Kitakyushu Method, a unique three-way collaboration between citizens, the private sector and government to address pollution. The fallout from overenthusiastic industrialization caused friction in other parts of Japan, Kitakyushu’s cooperative approach, however, was both different—and uniquely successful.

The Kitakyushu Environment Museum (above & below) details Kitakyushu’s triumph over pollution.

Kitakyushu’s economy was originally based on coal and steel.

A city reborn

By the 1970s, Kitakyushu had begun to turn the corner. As the local government introduced environmental regulations far more stringent than the central government’s, filters were attached to chimneys and pipes and toxic sludge was dredged from the seabed. The mothers of Kitakyushu had managed to make a reality of their campaign slogan, “We want our blue sky back.”

This tough experience positioned Kitakyushu perfectly to provide advice to other Asian countries as they in turn pushed ahead with industrialization. The city has a long tradition of sending public- and private-sector experts to consult overseas and has also hosted almost 7,000 trainees from 146 countries who come to study Kitakyushu’s environmental knowhow.

Accolades have followed. In 2008, Kitakyushu was one of the first six cities to be nominated an “Environmental Model City” by the Japanese government. It was also one of four Green Growth Cities, alongside Paris, Chicago and Stockholm, selected by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2011.

Teitan (“Low carbon dioxide”), the mascot for Kitakyushu’s environmental efforts

Four-point plan

The city’s environmental strategy rests on four key pillars. The first pillar is about securing the ongoing involvement of citizens in environmental issues. For the city’s environmental efforts to succeed, the participation of ordinary people is essential.

To encourage buy-in at the grassroots level, every autumn Kitakyushu holds Eco Life Stage, a fair to showcase environmental initiatives. Last year the two-day event drew 160,000 attendees—an impressive statistic in a city of 970,000. The city also offers a series of public exams for citizens to benchmark their environmental awareness. About 2,000 people take the tests every year.

The second pillar is about coexistence with nature. Environmentalism should be about not just minimizing man-made damage, but actively preserving nature’s riches. That’s why the city turned a stretch of reclaimed land into a forest nature reserve, the Hibikinada Biotope, which is now a favorite stopping-off point for rare birds.

But the real “stretch goals” of the plan are the last two: to create a low CO2 society and a recycling-based society. Kitakyushu is aiming to cut its CO2 emissions in half by 2050 vis-à-vis a 2005 base. A new smart town in Higashida, built on old land near the former site of the 1901 blast furnace, symbolizes its determination to realize the goal.

The smart town’s 230 residential and 50 office units use a smart grid and IT to enhance energy efficiency, with all the energy generated from renewable sources like wind and solar. Alerts from a control center keep residents abreast of energy consumption patterns and demand-based fluctuations. Making usage and pricing visible in this way has cut peak-time usage by 20%.

Kitakyushu town hall

A sign urging people to switch off unneeded lights

Volunteers at the Kitakyushu Environment Museum

Eco-Town concept

But perhaps it is in seeking to realize the recycling-based society where Kitakyushu’s commitment to the environmental cause is most strikingly on display. Consider Eco-Town. Based on 2,000 hectares of reclaimed land in the Wakamatsu district, Kitakyushu’s Eco-Town is a cluster of 27 recycling businesses. It started in 1997 and remains the biggest such grouping in Japan.

Eco-Town consists of two main areas: the Science and Research Park for Practical Research, where universities and the private sector explore things like waste disposal and recycling technologies, and the Comprehensive Environmental Industrial Complex, which is home to a range of recycling businesses.

Alongside companies backed by major Japanese manufacturers that specialize in recycling key products like photocopiers, automobiles and fluorescent tube lighting can be found small and medium-sized enterprises devoted to the recycling of everyday commodities like cooking oil, paper and cans.

Thanks to the clustering effect, Eco-Town can achieve higher recycling rates and lower transportation costs through internal cooperation. For example, Eco-Town’s photocopier recycler can send the glass it retrieves to another Eco-Town firm which makes fluorescent tubes from recycled glass.

The Kitakyushu Eco-Town plays an important role in combating the widespread perception that waste disposal and recycling are “dirty businesses that no one would want in their neighborhood.” To help overcome this prejudice, any company that comes to Eco-Town is contractually obliged to be transparent and accept visitors.

Yasuko Mine, a guide at the Eco-town Center

Exhibit of recycled products from Eco-Town

Steel and aluminum cans at the Eco-Town Center

Eco education

Taking those visitors around is the responsibility of the guides at the dedicated Ecotown Center. According to Yasuko Mine, one of the guides, around 15% of Eco-Town’s annual 100,000 visitors come from overseas, with China and Korea especially well represented. The biggest cohort, at 50%, is university students and school kids.

“Children in the year four of primary school in Kitakyushu get about ten hours of environmental education. They might combine a visit to a car factory with a visit to Eco-Town’s car recycle plant to get a full picture of the product lifecycle,” Mine explains. In a reversal of normal roles, children who have had their eyes opened at Eco-Town often end up persuading their parents to try to live in a more eco-conscious manner.

Before going to an actual recycle plant, visitors go around the Eco-Town Center to get an overview of the various recycling activities taking place nearby. A polyester suit made 75% from recycled plastic bottles and fluorescent tube lights including recycled glass and fluorescent materials are among the exhibition highlights.

Mine, however, is keen to point out that Eco-Town is about more than recycling. It is also home to Japan’s first commercial wind power plant with 10 wind turbines producing power for 10,000 households and features a nature reserve known as the biotope. “Eco-Town is an expanding combination of things, a truly multifaceted environmental space,” she enthuses.

Monument commemorating the Yawata Steel Works

Teruhiko Koshiji of Recycle Tech

Multifunction copiers awaiting recycling

Recycling in action

But recycling is very much the core activity at Eco-Town, as suggested by the name of Recycle Tech Co. Ltd., the specialist in office equipment recycling that we visited. “Here we disassemble and recycle about 20,000 copiers per year,” says Teruhiko Koshiji, the plant manager. “Our recycling rate has risen from 95% when we opened to 99% now.”

That’s a strong contrast to how things were when Recycle Tech opened as Western Japan’s largest office equipment recycling facility in 1997. Back then, copiers were simply thrown straight into landfill.

Beyond benefitting the environment by cutting waste, Recycle Tech also play a constructive social role by providing disabled people with work and the opportunity to engage with society. “Their experience here helps them to develop a valuable core skill set—the ability to work a full day and to collaborate and discuss problems with other people,” says Koshiji.

Ultimately, though, the true test for Kitakyushu Eco-Town is whether it can be self-sustaining. The “Eco” in Eco-Town stands for both “economy” and “ecology.” Just like other businesses, Kitakyushu’s recyclers have to keep adapting as the recycling business becomes increasingly global and competitive. For example, when rare earth prices surged a few years ago, Eco-Town tenant Japan Recycling Light Technology & System began extracting rare earths from fluorescent materials for resale.

“All the companies here are doing their best to adapt and add value,” concludes an upbeat Mine. “Steel and cars are the big traditional industries in Kitakyushu. The city is now seeking to build its environmental technology into a third, equally strong pillar.”

Disassembling the copier

Operating the plastic crusher

Kitakyushu’s wind farm

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