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Clueless policy persists as Japan burns the unburnables

by Philip Brasor

Last month, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara traveled to Fiji and Tuvalu on a fact-finding mission. Since the trip cost Tokyo taxpayers more than ¥15 million, the press was interested in just what sort of facts the governor would find in the South Seas and how they could be applied to one of the world’s biggest cities.

The media took Ishihara to task last year for extravagances he charged the city during official visits abroad, so his live conference call from Tuvalu to a symposium organized by the Japan International Cooperation Agency may have been meant to pre-empt such criticism. But just to play it safe he also held a press conference after his return. The original reason for the trip was to research global warming: The Pacific Ocean is encroaching on Tuvalu’s coastline, and since Tokyo is also close to the Pacific Ocean maybe there was something he could learn. However, most of his comments were didactic. Once he arrived in Tuvalu he obviously felt he should offer these simple people his sage advice, and told his hosts they could build a huge dyke around the main island and destroy one of the smaller islands to use as landfill. Since their garbage situation is also getting worse, he offered to send them some of Japan’s very efficient and very compact waste incinerators.

In Tuvalu’s case, such makeshift solutions are probably the only solutions since global warming and the attendant rise in sea level is not a problem that’s going to be solved overnight. And if there’s anything Tokyo knows about then it’s landfill and incinerators. Tuvalu’s waste problems are reportedly as serious as its coastline crisis, owing to greater dependency on imported foods which has resulted in an abundance of packaging refuse.

But a makeshift solution is a makeshift solution, and that’s another thing the Tokyo government knows about. Last week, it launched a “model project” in certain neighborhoods of the 23 wards to see whether or not shifting plastic waste from the non-burnable to the burnable category would have any adverse environmental effects. However, the reason for the project is more economic than it is environmental. The current 518-hectare landfill site off the coast of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay will be completely filled in 35 years, and after that there will be no place to bury refuse in Tokyo. Landfill consists of non-burnable refuse, ash from incinerators and industrial waste. Of these three, non-burnable refuse is the bulkiest, and 70 percent of it is waste from households. Moreover, more than half is plastic. It has been estimated by the environmental ministry that, by weight, non-burnable waste can be reduced by 70 percent if it is incinerated, in which case the Odaiba landfill could last another 15 years.

Nevertheless, the idea that you can suddenly burn something you couldn’t before bothers some people, and the Asahi Shimbun recently asked three experts to analyze Tokyo’s move. According to them, even the initial decision to classify plastics as non-burnable was made for economic reasons. The classifications were adopted in 1973, during what was known as the “garbage wars.” At that time the capacity of Tokyo’s incinerators was insufficient to handle the amount of refuse being produced. The priority for burning was raw garbage, since it was considered too unsanitary to bury. Plastic, which would remain unchanged for decades if not centuries, was OK to bury, so in order to ease the burden on incinerators all plastic waste was separated and dumped in landfills.

By 1997, Tokyo’s incineration capacity caught up with the volume of waste being produced, a development Ishihara alluded to at the press conference. Of course, one of the reasons capacity was so great is that over the years more local governments promoted recycling and reuse, so in a sense the problem since 1997 is over-capacity: incinerators waste money when they aren’t incinerating. Also, some local governments make money from incineration by producing energy. They sell electricity to offset the cost of garbage processing, so plastic will now become a “resource.”

In a sense, the move to recycle plastic, symbolized by the “pura” recycling mark that adorns every item of plastic manufactured in Japan, will slow down even more. In order to recycle plastic it must be extremely clean, and Itabashi Ward, for example, has no facilities for cleaning plastic, which meant they previously had to ship their plastic refuse to Chiba or Saitama for processing. It’s cheaper to burn it, and so the shift to burnable solves whatever budgetary problems they faced trying to carry out a recycling plan.

According to people in the environmental ministry, burning plastic “does not produce much dioxin,” because new incinerators use such high temperatures. However, the problem that many people have with the Tokyo experiment has less to do with possible pollutants than it does with creating an undesirable public mind-set.

Recycling has seen good progress in Japan over the past 20 years, so what kind of signal does it send to suddenly tell people to dump their plastic in the fire? And what does it say to other local governments, like the one in Yokohama, where residents now must separate their garbage into 15 different categories? The problem, as one housewife editorialized in the Asahi, is that the national government doesn’t want to take the initiative and implement policies that unify the country’s environmental and waste countermeasures. “It’s all talk,” she writes, and gestures like “cool biz” and urging people to use “eco bags” to cart their groceries home instead of plastic bags are more symbolic than practical. What’s needed is a concerted effort on the part of government and industry, but makeshift solutions are the norm. Maybe Ishihara is right in a way. Tokyo is quite a bit like Tuvalu.