PaperLab is turning used paper into new paper and helping Kitakyushu evolve as a world “evolution” heritage city

Practical SDGs Future City solutions create new opportunities for employment

Kitakyushu City, Fukuoka Prefecture.
Did you know that this region has been designated as an “environmentally advanced city?”

Kitakyushu City is the home of the registered world cultural heritage Imperial Steel Works (starting operation in 1901) and its related facilities, an indicator of how the city was the origin of the industrial revolution in Japan during the 1900s. The region further developed with a focus on heavy industries, but since the 1960s has also been faced with the issues that come with being an industrial city, such as serious pollution.

In order to overcome these difficulties, the private, industrial, and public sectors came together to undertake anti-pollution measures, restoring our blue skies and blue seas, and creating a balance between industry and the environment that is maintained to this day. A passion for manufacturing coupled with a high awareness of the environment are rooted in the DNA of this city.

Kenji Amioka, president of the Yahatahigashida Town Planning Liaison Group
Kenji Amioka, president of the Yahatahigashida Town Planning Liaison Group

According to Mr. Kenji Amioka, president of the Yahatahigashida Town Planning Liaison Group, “We were selected by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) in 2018 as the first SDGs (stainable development goals) model city in Asia, and have also been selected by Japan as a SDGs Future City. Kitakyushu is where the industrial revolution started in Japan; we now have a historic duty to help bring about a green revolution for the entire world.”
“SDGs are not just about the environment. They are also about tackling goals with social value, such as diversity and the creation of employment. Kitakyushu has successfully maintained our economy alongside the environment, but we have been looking for ways in which we can also contribute to addressing social issues.” (Mr. Amioka)

This leads us to Seiko Epson’s “PaperLab,” developed in 2015 as the first(*) dry process office paper making machine in the world*. This innovative product can break down used paper into thin fibers with just the press of a single button, and then create recycled paper of varying thicknesses and colors.

*The first dry process office paper making machine in the world as of Feb 2021 (Epson investigation).

“Recycling paper without using water(*)*. That means just one of these machines can allow recycling while placing only an incredibly small burden on the environment. Furthermore, it’s simple to operate, and allows for the easy creation of not just normal office paper but also thicker paper for packaging or business cards. If this cycle can take root, it will contribute to the creation of new jobs, and realize collaborations that encompass society and various sectors. I think it will allow us to hit some of our boldest SDGs targets.”

*A small volume of water is used to maintain humidity levels inside the machine.

Practical SDGs Future City solutions create new opportunities for employment

The endeavor has also been joined by the NPO Wakuwa-ku, which proactively operates a wide range of undertakings in the city?one of which is the disability welfare support office “BOCCHI.”

The worthwhile work of using cutting-edge technology to tackle big social problems

Yuko Kobashi, representative of Wakuwa-ku, recalls “I remember immediately replying that we wanted to take part!”

“We offer a welfare service for disabled facility users to obtain training in light work. These include things like baking confectionery or work subcontracted from companies. Of course, they receive a wage, but as many of these tasks are simple ones the resulting low wages have definitely been an issue.” (Ms. Kobashi)

Epson’s PaperLab allows people to make recycled paper for themselves, without the use of a large recycling plant. Furthermore, it is also easy to turn the recycled paper into a variety of other paper products. This allows disabled individuals to create recycled paper products, which have a much higher added value than other work they have been performing. Epson has a new term for this new kind of recycling that breaks the previous chain, “up-cycling”?as it includes further added value?and it was exactly the kind of work with additional value that Wakuwa-ku had been looking for.

“Allowing facility users to get their hands on the latest technology was also a big factor. A big element of one’s motivation for work is how much fun it is, and how interesting one find it. If it can also help to improve the environment of our local region, it’s something that our facility users can be proud of being a part of, and that feels rewarding for them.” (Ms. Kobashi)

Yuko Kobashi, representative of Wakuwa-ku
Yuko Kobashi, representative of Wakuwa-ku

In October 2020, the triumvirate of the Yahatahigashida Town Planning Liaison Group, Wakuwa-ku, and Epson therefore?with support from Kitakyushu City launched the “Regional Co-Creation Project Originating with Paper Circulation.”

PaperLab machines were first placed in cutting edge IT companies, research organizations, and in the first-floor lobby of the “Kyushu Human Media Creation Center,” the building where the Seiko Epson Kitakyushu office is also located.

The Wakuwa-ku facility users head out into the community to collect used paper; not only from the people working in these offices, but also other regional companies, municipal bodies, and schools. They then sort the collected paper and use PaperLab to turn it into recycled products.

“This is their first experience of working outside. There is plenty to be done, including collection, sorting, and operation. Mentally speaking, it was quite a burden for our facility users to learn all these new things. But what they have obtained as a result has been far larger.” (Ms. Kobashi)

One of the facility users commented “I am proud to do this work.” In the survey performed afterwards, an overwhelming number of respondents answered, “This feels more rewarding than other work” and “It feels like I am creating more value than before.”

Samples of upcycled items
Samples of upcycled items

The work also seems to have created positive effects that are harder to see, such as allowing workers to enjoy interacting with people in the community as they collect the paper, and taking pride in their work by operating the high-profile PaperLab technology. Of course, the business cards and packaging created from the recycled paper also means an increase in wages.

“Some people hold the mentality that the disabled workforce aren’t bothered by simple or repetitive tasks, and so that’s the kind of work they should perform. I don’t agree with that. Tackling creative work like this, with high added value, is not only a rewarding experience but also a lot of fun. I hope this undertaking also brings that kind of effect to the fore.” (Mr. Amioka)

World “evolution” heritage, bringing together the people of a region and creating continuous value

The environment, creating employment, and social inclusion.

This project clearly resolves issues on all of these fronts, meeting a variety of SDGs targets, and is also being closely watched by a number of educational institutions.

A program has been started for students at the Kokura Middle School attached to the University of Teacher Education Fukuoka to think during class of ways to use up-cycled paper. A study tour has also been created with Fukuoka Prefectural Kokura High School, allowing students to observe the project for the day and learn about the environment, economics, and society. The Matsumoto Lab in the University of Kitakyushu Graduate School of Environmental Engineering’s Department of Life and Environment Engineering has performed a qualitative value analysis of this project. Such further developments of the social ROI (return on investment) will also help to create new SDGs evaluation indices.

This undertaking is a new way for the people to the region to work together, and a major trigger to a further up-cycle for the environment, economy, and society.

Amioka made a striking impression with his final thoughts. “Kitakushu and the Yahatahigashida area have become world cultural heritage sites as the location of the start of the Japanese industrial revolution. The revolutions starting from this city are not over yet, however. They continue, in the present, ongoing sense.”

“We are aiming for a global green revolution, and evolution into a region that realizes SDGs. Our city will continue to tackle new challenges and create new values, truly becoming world “evolution” heritage.” (Mr. Amioka)
We hope you will continue to follow the undertakings of Epson in Kitakyushu City.

World “evolution” heritage, bringing together the people of a region and creating continuous value