National

It's still a dirty job, but new vomit vacuum will help Tokyo station staff do it

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

While your December agenda might be filled with joyful year-end parties, train station staff in Tokyo often face a more disgusting reality — vomit left behind by drunken holiday revelers at railway hubs across the capital.

According to Tokyo-based cleaning company JR East Environment Access Co., an average of 20 to 30 piles of vomit — usually the result of a wild night on the town — are found daily in and around Shinagawa Station. The average jumps to 60 on a Friday night, the firm said.

That figure doubles further at this time of year, according to the company, when numerous workers and students attend bōnenkai (year-end) drinking parties.

In response to this slimy and smelly, but predictable nuisance, JR East Environment Access — which touts itself as the “top company in the number of vomit clean-ups in Japan” — has invented a powerful vomit-cleaning vacuum that is used with a specially developed liquid-absorbing powder.

“We have been receiving complaints that vomit residue remains visible even after a vomit pile has been cleaned up using our conventional method. Our initial intention behind creating the machine was to solve that problem,” said a company spokesman.

Employees usually clean up vomit by covering it with sawdust to absorb excess moisture before sweeping it up with a broom and dustpan. The area is then sanitized with disinfectant.

But puke stains often remain.

In contrast, the new vomit vacuum uses a white powder that absorbs liquid much faster than sawdust. The powder, named Access Clean, is a recycled product made by grinding materials used in adult diapers. The diapers are new, but faulty, and would otherwise be thrown away.

The powder is more effective at ensuring that no stain is left behind and is also environmentally friendly, according to the spokesman, as the 11 tons of sawdust that the company uses every year will be significantly reduced thanks to the new powder.

The firm, which cleans more than 400 stations operated by East Japan Railway Co. (JR East), will begin taking purchase orders for the new machine from the end of January and has already received numerous inquiries from restaurants and bus operators.

After the powder has completely absorbed the liquid, the machine vacuums the remaining vomit into a garbage bag. Disinfectants are applied during the vacuuming stage.

When asked why the machine’s hose and bag are transparent, the spokesman noted, “There was a huge debate about it, but making it see-through was the easiest way to ensure that no vomit remained in the vacuum hose.”

He said that another reason for mechanizing the clean-up process was the current labor shortage and the increasing number of foreign workers employed by the company.

“Nobody wants to clean up vomit several times a day, and many foreign workers tend to be reluctant to perform such duties.”

Of the company’s approximately 3,800 cleaning staffers, about 200 are foreign workers, and the company expects to increase that number in the future to fill the labor-shortage gap. “At the very least, we can hope this machine will help minimize the stress associated with vomit cleanup,” the spokesman said.