Japan tackles mountains of trash left in tsunami's wake
Japanese cities leveled by the March tsunami are now left with more trash than they would normally dispose of in a century. Recycling it all is a daunting task.
When the tsunami that hit northeastern Japan on March 11 was sucked back out to sea, it left more than shattered lives and businesses in its catastrophic wake.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Japan: The long road to recovery
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In this port city, a hub of the local fishing industry, it also left more trash and debris than the city would normally have to dispose of in 100 years. Despite the daunting task ahead, the country is committed to recycling it all.
Four months after the disaster, most of that 6 million tons of debris is still uncleared. Upturned cars lie by the roadside; abandoned houses sag on uncertain foundations; piles of timber and masonry await collection.
"When you get a century's worth of waste all at once, cleaning up is a marathon task," says Tomofumi Miura, an official in the city government's trash-disposal department. "It will take us at least a year just to collect it all."
Cities up and down the coast face similar challenges. The Environment Ministry estimates that the earthquake and tsunami created nearly 25 million tons of debris.
And the mess is more than just a massive eyesore.
"The problem is that people cannot even start to rebuild because of the huge amount of trash," points out Tomoki Kagawa, a researcher with the National Federation of Industrial Waste Management Associations.
Soldiers in elbow-length gloves
The scale of the task is evident in Watanoma district near Ishinomaki's harbor. One recent cloudy morning, platoons of soldiers wearing elbow-length blue rubber gloves and armed with shovels, rakes, picks, and axes were clearing the neighborhood house by house, removing the muck and debris that clogged them.
They worked carefully – they are still finding bodies concealed under the debris – neatly piling any intact furniture or bric-a-brac they found. But most of the wreckage that they carted out in wheelbarrows was loaded onto trucks.
On one street a bulldozer razed a ruined home, heaping its broken beams and walls onto another truck.
There are some 28,000 houses in Ishinomaki so badly damaged that they will have to be knocked down, according to the mayor, Hiroshi Kameyama.
Scores of trash-collection centers
A little way out of the city, a stretch of land behind a high school has been converted into a waste collection center. For 200 yards along its length runs a 15-foot-high ridge of timber, higgledy-piggledy. Nearby, neatly stacked traditional tatami mats, a staple of most homes here, are arranged in piles.
One end of the dump is taken up by a huge expanse of mangled electrical appliances. At the other end stands a mountain of random garbage, ranging from small trees to plastic bags; halfway up is perched a bulldozer, shifting the loads that a procession of trucks, pickups, vans, and other vehicles deposit at the mountain's foot.