Thursday 24 January 2019

Overflowing with Plastic Waste: Recycling, Landfill, and Incineration in Japan

Local Garbage Incineration Plant
The World Economic Forum (WEF=世界経済フォーラム) is currently holding its annual meeting as I write and Abe gave a speech on Wednesday pushing for an international agreement on the reduction of plastic waste following up on his November 15th ASEAN+3 Marine Plastics Debris Cooperative Action Initiative. The government's sudden enthusiasm to do something about plastic waste is less down to a new found environmental awareness and more due to China's ban on importing plastic waste from January 2018. This left Japan in a bind since China has previously accepted most of the 1.5 million tons of plastic waste exported in previous years. The situation is even more urgent since Japan ranks second internationally after America in terms of the colume of single-use plastic containers discarded.

While Japan is well known for its mottainai ("what a waste!") green mindset, in reality environmental awareness is weak and recycling of household garbage is low (around 20% in 2016, less than half that in the UK). In terms of plastic, while 84% of all plastic waster is ostensibly recycled, the majority of this is actually burned in a process that is rather dishonestly called "thermal recycling." On the ground, some supermarkets do now give a discount for bringing your own shopping bag (my local gives ¥2 off!) this is still not widespread and the ubiquitous convenience stores, which are hugely popular, churn out a mountain of plastic packaging seemingly without any attempt to deal with the waste. Moreover, the movement to reduce one-use items like plastic straws which has swept many Western countries has not really gained traction in Japan, with restaurant operator Skylark the first (and only?) Japanese business to officially announce it will stop using them (unless customer's request them!). The government did announce in a draft strategy at the end of last year a proposal to introduce a mandatory charge for plastic bags (レジ袋有料義務化) but like much else in Japan it remains under discussion.

In everyday life, Japan has long been known for its meticulous garbage separation rules. Certainly it started this a lot earlier then the UK; I remember my wife being shocked that almost all rubbish was throw in the same bin when visiting England in the 1990s! In my local area rubbish is collected every weekday: Monday is recycle day (cans, bottles, clean plastic, batteries etc), Tuesday and Friday are for burnables (moeru gomi =燃えるごみ), Wednesday is for non-burnable (moenai gomi=燃えないごみ including dirty plastic containers), and Thursday is for paper and cardboard (as well as fabric). For over-sized rubbish (known as sodai gomi =粗大ごみ)it is necessary to buy a special sticker and then ring to arrange a pick up date. Kodaira City has a detailed website explaining how to throw out rubbish correctly (gomi no dashikata =ごみの出し方). Interestingly, non-Japanese struggling to throw out garbage in the correct way has become a source of cultural friction in some neighbourhoods and is even sometimes cited as a reason against more migration! As a result most municipalities now have brochures in various languages (English here and here).

What of the future? Many local authorities, especially in Tokyo, are beginning to take the issue more seriously. My locality will make it compulsory to throw out rubbish in designated coloured bags, costing from ¥100 for 10, from April as a way to reduce household waste (pictured). Nevertheless, space for landfill, especially in the growing Tokyo metropolis, is becoming increasingly scarce; it is said, it will run out altogether in another 50 years. This article describes the artificial island facing central Tokyo packed with citizens' waste in a long standing tradition of "filling in the sea with trash." However, only about one-eighth of rubbish ends up in such landfills; much of the rest is burned at extremely high temperatures (the board outside the incineration plant pictured above gives a temperature of 958℃ in the shot below). Such high temperatures supposedly limit the amount of dangerous dioxins being released into the atmosphere via the smokestack. Unfortunately, it is still not uncommon to see (and smell) householders and small-lot farmers burning rubbish on their property, seemingly oblivious of the noxious fumes that are being released.