Japan’s Garbage Problem

May 21, 2005

Waste and dangerous chemicals are major environmental issues in densely populated Japan.

It was just an old chair—an office chair, to be precise. I had rescued it from a rubbish collection drop-off some years previously, and it had served me well. But now I was moving to a new home and no longer needed it, so I had to dispose of it. It was too damaged to sell or even give away.

One of Japan’s 1,890 household-waste incinerators is near the Columbans’ Japan headquarters in Tokyo.

One of Japan’s 1,890 household-waste incinerators is near the Columbans’ Japan headquarters in Tokyo.

I could have put it out to be collected with the unburnable rubbish, but the company that collected the church garbage would likely charge to dispose of it. The head teacher of the Church kindergarten, who lives outside town, offered to take it home and burn it for me, but I was afraid that would produce dangerous gases, perhaps even dioxin. I finally decided to get the company to collect it, even if they charged a fee.

My two years in Komagane in Nagano were two years in paradise. Located between the central and southern Japanese Alps, the town has magnificent views and has trails that are ideal for running and hiking. The only thing I found hard to get used to was the rubbish collection system. Rubbish had to be divided into more than 20 categories. Some categories were collected every week; others were collected only every few months. The system was complicated enough to require a 28-page booklet to explain it.

Although I found it hard to work out the various categories (plastic straws on juice boxes could be burned, but the plastic cover around the straw could not), I was glad that Komagane was addressing responsible rubbish disposal.

The garbage problem in Japan is one of the world’s most severe environmental problems. Japan’s 130 million people produce about 52 million tons of garbage each year, which equates to a very high per capita rate of nearly 2.5 pounds of garbage per person each day. The nation’s dump sites are fast filling up, and some gets shipped overseas, some of it illegally. Much is illegally dumped in Japan’s mountains, many of which are remote, but some of which are close to towns.

Because of the shortage of suitable disposal sites, Japan burns as much rubbish as possible. Japan has 1,890 household-waste incinerators, the highest number, and also the highest concentration, in the world. In comparison, the United States, with more than double the population, has about 200.

Dioxin, one of the deadliest poisons known, is produced when plastics are burned. It has been linked to cancer and is suspected of disrupting the hormones that regulate biological processes such as sexual development. Many of Japan’s incinerators are pouring dioxin into the air at levels far above what most of the world considers safe. According to a 1999 United Nations report, Japan’s incinerators churn out almost 40 percent of the world’s dioxin emissions.

In the early 1980s, a Japanese scientist issued a public warning about dioxin that was ignored by Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare. Evidence of dioxin’s dangers accumulated, but Japan didn’t get around to setting emissions rules until 1997. Environmentalists say the rules are loose by international standards and aren’t seriously enforced.

Takagi Yoshiyuki, of the nongovernmental organization Earth Village, says the rules for the allowable amount of dioxin in soil in Japan are 100 times the amount in Canada and Sweden. He says Japan does not even regulate the amount of dioxin in food. One newspaper reported that amounts of dioxin 26 times the advisable limit have been detected in human breast milk.

Japan garbage collection and disposal, including building incinerators, is a $200 billion business, according to Takagi. The income that local governments derive from this, he says, is one reason why they are in no hurry to reduce the amount of rubbish.

Rubbish collection points in Tokyo are a common site. Bottles are placed in yellow crates while blue crates hold magazines, newspapers and corrugated cardboard. Netting is used to cover garbage that contains food scraps to prevent crows from eating it. Crows are a serious problem in many Japanese cities.

Rubbish collection points in Tokyo are a common site. Bottles are placed in yellow crates while blue crates hold magazines, newspapers and corrugated cardboard. Netting is used to cover garbage that contains food scraps to prevent crows from eating it. Crows are a serious problem in many Japanese cities.

Prayer Of St. Basil
Now I am living in Tokyo. There is a large incinerator just less than a half-mile from our Columban headquarters. I wonder how much dioxin it emits?

When I think of Japan’s garbage and dioxin problem, I am reminded of the prayer of St. Basil:

“O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, even our brothers, the animals, to whom Thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to Thee in song, has been a groan of pain. May we realize that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee, and that they love the sweetness of life.”

I think we all need to take to heart the words of some wise person whose name eludes me: “There is no ‘away.’ ‘Away’ no longer exists. We can no longer throw things ‘away.’ ” No matter where or how we dispose of something, it will have an effect on us and on the rest of the Earth.