National / Science & Health

Trash talk: Tokyo city opens bar in waste-management facility to spark environment debate

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Like many Tokyoites, Miki Takara, 53, was sipping beer and indulging in specially prepared delicacies at a bar on a recent Friday evening. But something made this scene in Tokyo’s western city of Musashino a bit different: At this bar, the only thing separating her from a concrete waste pit was a single pane of glass.

Takara, who works at a local nursery school and came with two colleagues, was visiting the Gomi-Pit Bar (Waste-Pit Bar), a temporary cocktail bar set up within a waste disposal facility as part of an initiative aimed at boosting awareness of environmental issues and waste disposal.

“It’s surprising how much garbage is thrown away just in Musashino,” she said taking in the sight of the waste pit. “It makes me think I need to do more to reduce trash at home.”

She was among 20 people selected by lottery who came to enjoy the strange experience of tasting local beer and cocktails — made using honey-soaked mushrooms or locally harvested vegetables — while taking in the sight of garbage being sorted and prepared for incineration.

Standing next to City Hall, Musashino Clean Center is the city’s sole waste management facility and handles combustible, noncombustible, bulky and hazardous waste from local residents and companies operating there.

And the facility has its hands full with not only volume, but certain types of waste.

Japan threw away about 43.17 million tons of waste in fiscal 2016, the last year such statistics were available, according to the Environment Ministry. Worryingly, a recent survey by the ministry has also shown that many local governments are struggling to cope with plastic waste piling up since China banned the import of such waste last year. Some scrap companies have even seen their piled-up waste exceed the legal limit.

In fiscal 2017, the Clean Center burned some 2.81 million tons of waste. Taking this into account, Musashino has resolved to make a dent in the amount of waste it produces.

“Of course our priority is to reduce waste levels,” said Ayana Seki, a city government officer overseeing the Clean Center plant who was also a member of the organizing team for the December event at the bar.

In Musashino, a large portion of waste, with the exception of cans, glass and plastic bottles, is collected for a fee. Like some other areas in the country, residents and firms in the city must also purchase special bags in which they dispose of garbage to have it collected.

On Dec. 14, visitors to the Gomi-Pit Bar could see firsthand how the bags they use to dispose of garbage are treated. The process resembled an elaborate dance.

Once in a while, a lumbering elevated crane picked up a ton of bagged waste, crushed and broke the bags and dispersed the garbage evenly over the 23-meter-deep pit. Then the crane moved a pile of the sorted garbage to one of two incinerators to transform the waste into ash.

For every ton of garbage burned, the result is a 100 kilograms of ash, which is reused in various forms, including as raw material for cement and in the production of tiles. The center’s two incinerators can burn up to 120 tons of waste per day, but typically handle 100 tons — equivalent to 80 truckloads.

At the event, the visitors were shown around the plant, which has a total floor space of 8,900 square meters, and introduced to devices that remove iron and other elements from waste, as well as other equipment used to filter the flue gas resulting from the process.

Ryota Kishii, a 32-year-old information technology programmer from Saitama Prefecture who works in Musashino, attended the event with his colleagues. Aware of the city’s waste disposal efforts, Kishii said his company, too, had implemented strict rules in line with Musashino’s regulations.

“If we throw something away mistakenly, it may not get collected,” Kishii said. “When you watch how the garbage is processed, you get a better awareness of how waste is divided up, and watching those who work (at the waste disposal firm) makes you realize that you cause them trouble” if you incorrectly dispose of waste.

While residents and firms now appear at least somewhat more open to the idea of having their trash treated within the city, locals were in the past far more hostile toward the idea. For nearly three decades, a not-in-my-backyard attitude was the dominant sentiment.

Eventually, after a protracted battle to win residents’ approval to build a new plant on the site of an aging waste disposal facility in the city, the Musashino city government prevailed.

In April 2017, after years of wrangling, the Musashino Clean Center finally opened its doors, replacing a now 30-year-old facility that remains on the same land but is scheduled for demolition and rebuilding. Just a year later, the site received a Good Design Award from the Japan Institute of Design Promotion.

Seki recalled complaints from locals over the years, noting that public sentiment had changed little during that time.

“It’s not a facility people want to have in their neighborhoods,” she said. “In the past, waste incineration plants, including the one in Musashino, were associated with dirtiness and air pollution … so when planning the new one, we aimed to create something that would have a positive impact (on the local community).”

That planning appears to have paid off: In the year since its opening, some 23,000 people visited the plant, which is open to the public in order to allay concerns over how the trash is processed. What’s more, there has also been a push to promote its positive aspects.

One of which is its ability to serve as a power source for the local community, since the waste treated at the plant is converted into usable forms of energy.

“Given its location in the city center with a number of public facilities (nearby), including the city government office and a gymnasium … (it) can easily supply energy to such facilities,” Seki said. It’s also quake-resistant and may play a significant role as an energy supplier in the event of a natural disaster or crisis.

Masakazu Suzuki, a Tsukuba University professor emeritus with expertise in urban planning who attended the December bar event, had high praise for the plant and the awareness campaign.

Suzuki, who has served as adviser to the Environment Ministry and also heads a committee overseeing a project aimed at ensuring sustainable waste management in the city, said that Musashino, which has already proven successful in engaging the public about the issue of waste management, could serve as a model for other waste disposal site operators.

Still, he encouraged a more blanket approach to raising awareness of waste management and addressing environmental issues in Japan.

“Most people who come (to the Clean Center) already have some knowledge of environmental issues and are seeking more detailed information,” Suzuki noted.

He lamented that many people tend to disregard waste disposal rules and suggested reaching out to the public through more frequently visited places such as medical institutions and schools.

Indeed, according to Suzuki, it is children who have the potential to become future environmental champions.

“We need to get the message across to children — elementary and junior high school students — who could teach their parents (about waste management),” he said. “Children have an appetite for knowledge, so if we give them an opportunity (to learn new things) they will absorb them and hopefully spread this knowledge.”

Gomi-Pit Bar will open its doors again on Jan. 18 and 19, and Feb. 2. For more information, visit: jtim.es/F8Pq30njvMz