Business & Economy Science & Technology Education & Society Sports & Fashion Arts & Entertainment
Top Picks Back Numbers Search

Decline in Waste Proves to Be a Mixed Blessing

August 24, 2000
Tokyo's waste disposal facilities, which for years operated at full capacity to incinerate the city's perpetually overflowing mountain of garbage, are now beset by a new problem--a garbage shortage. During the era of the speculative bubbles in the latter half of the 1980s, Tokyo built large-scale incinerators to handle the mounting volume of trash. In recent years the total has begun to fall short of predictions, however, due to changing circumstances in the manufacturing sector, as well as heightened awareness of recycling at the household level.

The idea that less is better does not necessarily hold true: When small amounts of waste are burned, there is a danger that dioxins will be produced during the incineration process. As a result, a number of facilities have had to close down furnaces and have suffered a loss in the revenue they earn through the sale of power generated by heat from the incinerators.

Big Furnaces Lying Idle
Located on the eastern edge of Tokyo, Koto Ward is home to a state-of-the-art waste disposal plant built in fall 1998. The plant has three furnaces, each capable of processing 600 tons of waste a day, one of the largest capacities in the country. According to ward officials, however, the three incinerators have been used together on just 25% of the days when the plant was operating. In fact, when the facility opened, the volume of trash had already begun to plummet, and one of the furnaces was turned into an auxiliary unit.

Since May 2000 the shortage has been particularly severe, and on some days less than 1,000 tons of trash are incinerated. A further decline would not only create temperature fluctuations in the furnaces but also carry the risk of generating dioxins. Koto Ward used to "borrow" refuse from the city's other facilities, but nowadays these other plants have begun to run short too. Because of residents' opposition to handling garbage from other prefectures, moreover, the Koto facility is left with no recourse.

The waste disposal plant in Suginami Ward--located in the western part of Tokyo--faces a similar dilemma. Suginami also has three furnaces, including an auxiliary unit, each of which can process 300 tons a day. After operations got underway in 1982 the two furnaces were used constantly. Since May 1999, however, the number of days in which one of the units is idle has grown, and the plant currently operates just one unit three months out of the year.

The garbage shortage has given rise to another problem: a decline in electricity generation. Tokyo's waste disposal plants are equipped with generators, and any surplus in electricity produced is sold to the local power company. The revenue from these sales is then used to cover part of the plants' expenditures. The Suginami plant, for example, has a generator that produces 6,000 kilowatts, enough electricity to power about 3,000 households. If 600 tons of waste a day are collected, the plant can count on about 180 million yen (1.64 million U.S. dollars at 110 yen to the dollar) in additional revenue a year. However, the total for fiscal 1999 (April 1999 to March 2000) fell 60 million yen (545,000 dollars) short of that level.

Changing Circumstances
The amount of garbage produced in Japan rose rapidly during the long expansionary phase of the bubble era. In Tokyo, a record 4.9 million tons of waste was generated in 1989, the year the bubbles began bursting. The metropolitan government responded by taking measures to reduce trash and building large-scale waste disposal facilities, and the number of plants in Tokyo's 23 wards rose by three to 17 as a result. An additional two are now being built, and the construction of three more is planned.

In the post-bubble economy, however, the amount of trash began to decline, defying the predictions of city officials. In 1999 Tokyo produced a total of 3.6 million tons, far below the 3.84 million tons originally expected and about the same level as that reached in the late 1970s after the oil crises. The city's 17 incinerators are said to be capable of handling 1.2 times more waste than they currently collect.

Tokyo is not the only city that faces a shortage. Other parts of Japan, particularly big cities like Osaka and Nagoya, are finding themselves in similar circumstances.

One factor behind this decline in garbage volume is a drop in manufacturing levels due to the prolonged recession, as well as a decrease in industrial waste brought about by recycling laws implemented over the last decade. Thanks to the spread of segregated disposal, moreover, some of the recyclable household waste that had been incinerated in the past are now being recycled and reused.

The "ecolife" boom has had a particularly important role in the decrease of household waste itself. Ecolife refers to a lifestyle in which environmental considerations take priority. People are increasingly turning in used milk cartons and styrofoam trays at stores that have collection boxes for recyclable waste, and some use old newspapers for cleaning and gardening purposes or kitchen garbage as fertilizers.

It appears that the concepts of large-scale production and consumption, which had been taken for granted in the days of the bubble economy, are coming to be called into question at both the industrial and personal levels. In that light, the problems posed by the decline in the amount of trash may be a welcome change from the past.

Back to Main Index

Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.