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Keep the soda cold: Japan’s vending machines face environmental concerns

December 9, 1997

KYOTO, Japan (AP) _ In cities, villages and even on Mount Fuji’s volcanic slopes, vending machines glow like neon sentinels through the night, dispensing hot coffee, cold soda and fresh snacks.

If critics had their way, they’d glow a lot less brightly.

Vending machines seem more like harmless symbols of the Japanese love of gadgetry and convenience than environmental villains. But at the climate conference in Kyoto, they have an unsavory reputation: electricity hogs.

``The real energy-eating ones are the drink machines, because they’ve got a cooler,″ said Andrew Kerr of the World Wide Fund for Nature. ``Even more shocking, there’s a heater so you can get hot coffee at 3 in the morning.″

Anyone who’s spent just a few hours in Japan can attest: vending machines are everywhere. In every building, clustered on every street corner, in the smallest rural towns; 5.4 million machines glow around the clock _ one for every 23 Japanese.

They’re hardly low-tech. The same machine can dispense cans of hot or cold drinks and give exact change with the fewest number of coins. Some vendors even show the progress of the coffee being poured with a series of lights. When the coffee’s done, a tone bleats and a little door opens.

But environmentalists say in these energy-conscious times, vending machines are ripe for a change.

The conference in Kyoto is focused on reducing emissions of ``greenhouse″ gases that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and are believed to have caused a rise in global temperatures. Conservation of electricity has an important role in cutting the use of fossil fuels like oil and coal.

Vending machines certainly use energy. The most energy-intensive machines, Japan’s 2 million drink dispensers guzzle 5.69 billion kilowatt-hours annually _ half the energy a nuclear power plant generates in a year, said Haruki Tsuchiya, president of the Research Institute for Systems Technology.

All told, vending machines account for about 3.7 percent of the electricity consumed in Japan.

And all that electricity is not cheap.

The total energy bill for just the drink machines _ not counting ubiquitous cigarette and snack machines _ comes out to a hefty $1.1 billion.

Tsuchiya estimates drink vending machines could cut energy consumption by 70 percent with better insulation, new refrigeration technology and adjustments in temperature in the machine.

And trim the lights. Environmentalists say 30 percent of vending machine energy use is consumed by the bright lights that shine day and night, in well-lighted offices or dark street corners.

Tsuchiya said manufacturers could make deep cuts in energy consumption by installing more sensors that only light up the machine when a customer approaches.

``These vending machines are just waiting for people to come,″ he said. ``It’s not that difficult to decrease that energy demand.″

The industry has already begun to change. Since 1995, about 30,000 ``Eco Vendors,″ which cool beverages only in the morning and cuts electricity by 10 percent in the afternoon, have taken their places on Japanese streets.

``I don’t think there’s really much of a problem, but since we use electricity, we’re trying to cut down on power consumption,″ said Takashi Kurosaki of the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers’ Association.

The industry is also going solar, with pilot machines operating in several cities, including Yokohama, just south of Tokyo. The project fits in with government plans to expand the use of solar energy.

``Vending machine solar batteries are only one application of solar energy,″ said Hiroyuki Kato, of the Environmental Agency’s Global Environment Department.

The trend comes at increasingly difficult times for Japanese vending machines, which dispense everything from scotch to freshly cut flowers. Machines that sell cigarettes and beer, for example, are being phased out and the products moved to convenience stores to stop teen-agers from indulging.

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