Photo/IllutrationMichihiko Iwamoto, chairman of Japan Environment Planning, drives a DeLorean car in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, in August 2015. The vehicle runs with fuel made from old clothes. (Keisuke Katori)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

When Michihiko Iwamoto worked for a trading house specializing in textiles, he was involved in producing work clothes with threads that were created from PET bottles.

So, he thought, why not "circulate everything" by returning all used items back to their original state and putting them into new products to sell.

Ten years ago, Iwamoto co-founded Japan Environment Planning (Jeplan Inc.), a venture company to promote recycling.

The firm, based in Tokyo, has expanded its business with unique projects such as creating a replica of the garbage-powered time machine car like the one that appeared in the 1985 U.S. mega-hit film “Back to the Future.”

The key in Jeplan's businesses is that the company is maintaining Iwamoto's philosophy to circulate everything along with keeping enjoyment in mind.

Iwamoto, the firm's chairman, formerly was a sales promotion staff member at the textile trading house. He began to tackle recycling in earnest after the Containers and Packaging Recycling Law took effect in 1995.

The law stipulates the roles of consumers, businesses and municipalities in decreasing the volume of containers and packaging that is said to account for about 60 percent of household garbage.

Consumers sort their refuse into bottles, cans, PET bottles and other items. Municipalities collect the garbage. Then, businesses produce products from them.

To realize Iwamoto's goal of circulating everything, however, the participation of several companies was necessary. But major companies hesitated to become involved in risky projects. Therefore, he began to think about founding a company on his own.

At that time, he met Masaki Takao, then a graduate student at the University of Tokyo, who was majoring in technology and management. In those days, bioethanol was starting to attract increasing attention.

According to Takao, it is technologically feasible to produce ethanol from cotton, which is one of the major raw materials in clothing. Because of that, Iwamoto and Takao decided to found Jeplan.

The characteristics of Jeplan are that the company thinks about the circulation of resources in the overall picture of a circle-like process.

Many years have passed since people began to pursue a “circulating society.” However, progress toward the establishment of this society is making little headway.

“That’s because people are tackling the issue from different angles,” Iwamoto says.

If Jeplan is successful in circulating everything and, as a result, shows its overall contribution even on a small scale, people will easily understand what they are doing and have incentives to do that, he explains.

One of the examples that constitute the circle is clothing. Of the world’s textile products, 60 percent are made of polyester and 30 percent come from cotton.

According to Jeplan’s business model, the company places collection boxes in retail outlets, and consumers drop off clothing there for recycling. Boxes filled with used clothing are sent to the firm’s factories in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.

At the factories, the clothes are placed in the recycling process. Cottons are reborn as ethanol, which will be used as an energy source.

Polyester has so far been processed in a factory of a cooperative company for recycling. However, Jeplan is scheduled to complete its own factory in Kita-Kyushu this year to process polyester for recycling.

It was not an easy road until retailers agreed to put collection boxes in their outlets. As the project was unprecedented, it was difficult to obtain their understanding. It took nearly two years for Jeplan to acquire the first agreement, which came from the retailer Ryohin Keikaku Co., which is selling its products under the name Muji (Mujirushi Ryohin).

Since then, however, the number of retailers that have placed the collection boxes has increased to 70, including those that plan to do so.

Jeplan is not only processing products for recycling but also developing new products. One is umbrellas whose plastic components are strong and replaceable. The concept of those products is, “Let’s use it enjoyably” by replacing the plastic parts.

The stance of tackling projects “enjoyably” is also consistently seen in Jeplan’s other businesses. That is because if the company does not have the stance, it will become difficult to continue to implement the projects successfully.

A typical example is the re-creation of the time machine from “Back to the Future,” which is one of Iwamoto's favorite movies. In the film, a car that runs on garbage transports passengers from 1985 to 2015.

Inspired by the movie, Iwamoto directly negotiated with Hollywood companies and succeeded in conducting a joint project with NBC Universal. He purchased a DeLorean automobile to replicate the vehicle in the movie.

On Oct. 21, 2015, the destination date of the time-travel trip depicted in the second film in the series, Iwamoto held an event to drive a DeLorean on ethanol made from T-shirts. Prior to the event, he took a caravan throughout the country featuring the famed car.

In addition, he allowed people to climb in the DeLorean to be photographed if they brought T-shirts, which are used as fuel for the car, to donate.

With many people gathering for the event, Iwamoto amassed the number of T-shirts that are usually collected in an entire year in less than three months. The success of the "Back to the Future" project allowed Iwamoto to recognize again that it is possible to tackle recycling in an enjoyable manner.

From the collection of used materials and the recycling of them to the development of new products and the staging of events, Jeplan implements everything in a consistent manner.

Ideas for unique recycling projects aimed to create the circle to "circulate everything" are continuing to grow.

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Editor's note: The fifth anniversary of Impact Journalism Day, an international reporting campaign, was marked on June 24.

The campaign was begun through an appeal from the Paris-based nonprofit media organization Sparknews, with the aim of allowing readers to continue to hold hope for tomorrow by presenting possible courses for resolving some of the most difficult problems facing the world today, such as refugees, poverty and climate change.

This year, a total of 50 newspapers and news sites, including The Asahi Shimbun, from 40 nations around the world, have contributed articles and shared them. AJW introduces some of those stories.