Kawasaki busy cleaning up its act

Once hotbed of pollution, city turns to green tech, industries

by Takahiro Fukada

The sky over Kawasaki once was choked with smoke billowing from factories along its waterfront, giving the city at the center of the Keihin Coastal Industrialized Zone a reputation as one of the country’s most polluted areas.

But Kawasaki has learned from its past and is building a new public image: an environmentally friendly city with clean technologies and geographical advantages, as well as a sparkling tourist destination full of attractions.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, Kawasaki was a major powerhouse driving Japan’s hard-charging economy. The downside of that industrial growth, however, was degradation of the environment and such problems as air pollution and water contamination.

“When I was a child, when I played in the park I became sick,” recalled Kazuyoshi Ito, director of the city’s industrial political department.

“This city (has) changed from dirty to beautiful. Now we can see Mount Fuji.”

Air pollutants from factories and cars led to illnesses such as chronic bronchitis and bronchial asthma among residents of Kawasaki and the surrounding areas.

Kawasaki decided something had to be done to clean the air and improve the water quality.

The Kawasaki Zero-Emission Industrial Complex was one answer. Companies there are controlling pollution as much as possible, maximizing resource recovery from waste matter, and regenerating energy to minimize the burden on the environment, the city says.

Opened in 2003 as the world’s first zero-emission paper mill, Sanei-Regulator Co.’s plant in the complex operates under the principle of taking full advantage of resources and discarding nothing.

The plant, which utilizes as much as 7,000 tons of used paper a month to produce as many as 1.1 million toilet paper rolls per day, succeeds in processing wastepaper that is normally difficult to recycle.

The company said it has developed a foreign-matter removal system for recycling paper mixed with plastics, clips and staples. Instead of being incinerated, the paper can now be used again.

With its water intake equipment, Sanei-Regulator is utilizing household effluent. Thermal energy generated by incinerating plastics is also converted into steam and reused in production, the company said.

Water purified in the wastewater treatment tower is also used to generate electricity to help power the plant. Paper sludge is treated at high temperatures to prevent dioxin and carbon dioxide emissions before being reused as a raw material for cement.

As many as 100 people from trading partners and other companies and organizations visit the plant daily, the company said. Visitors come from as far away as Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Sanei-Regulator says its technology has been exported to Russia, Mongolia, Vietnam, China and the United States.

By next spring, the plant will be collecting wastepaper from households all over Kawasaki for recycling.

The city has another ambitious project in the pipeline.

The Tonomachi 3-chome district near Tokyo Bay is right across the Tama River from Haneda airport.

With Haneda recently resuming regular overseas flights and embarking on a transformation into a 24-hour international hub, Kawasaki has aspirations of forming a central hub for the research and development of advanced technology in the environmental and life sciences fields.

Aiming to become the “Advanced Technology Capital of the World,” the city is inviting to the 40-hectare area institutions such as universities, research facilities and enterprises possessing advanced technology.

Officials say the Regenerative Medicine and New Drug Development Joint Research Center is scheduled to open next year, and the Collaborative Research Center for Business, Academia, Government and Citizens will get under way in 2012. Both names are still tentative at this point.

The latter is designed to be a complex of facilities including an environmental research institute, health and safety research center, R&D facilities and offices for private enterprises and universities, and an Asian venture business district, the city said.

“We are planning to accumulate the world’s most advanced research facilities, if possible, in the environmental and life sciences fields that we believe will be the very core of Japan’s economic growth strategies,” said Kawasaki Deputy Mayor Shinji Sunada.

Kawasaki’s efforts have borne fruit in unexpected corners — factories along the bay have developed into major nighttime sightseeing spots.

With the futuristic scenery of chemical plants and harbor facilities, night cruises of the industrial zone in traditional “yakatabune” pleasure boats have proven massively popular with tourists.

On a recent evening, passengers boarded a yakatabune dimly lit with orange paper lanterns. Around 5:30 p.m., the boat left the small dock and headed for the canals.

A tour guide explained each key building as the boat proceeded past refineries, steel mills and electric power plants.

Passengers snapped photo after photo of the surreal scenes, from both inside and outside the cabin.

They also got a kick out of seeing an endless series of planes taking off and landing at nearby Haneda. The two-hour cruise passed surprisingly quickly.

City official Masakatsu Ozawa says the boom started about five years ago with the publication of a popular book featuring photographs of nighttime factories.

After kicking around the idea of utilizing the city’s night view as a tourism resource, officials got boat operator Chohachi on board. It started the cruise service in January.

Operating on the second and the fourth Saturday every month and costing ¥4,000 per adult, cruises are fully booked through December. There is even a waiting list, Ozawa said.

The cruises draw a wide range of people from youngsters to older people, the operator said.

“Although the factories weren’t designed for nighttime viewing, it turns out to be more beautiful than you’d think,” Ozawa said.