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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.

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Years, perhaps decades, of recycling

Japan is a world leader in recycling, proud of its environmental technology and strict laws governing the ecological treatment of waste. Almost all the debris now being collected will, one day, be turned into something else, officials say.

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Timber will be chipped and either burned to create electricity or compacted into chipboard for construction. Metal scrap will be melted down. Masonry will be crushed and used in the foundations of new ports and roads. Tatami mats will be shredded and used as compost.

But no country has ever faced such a mammoth recycling job. If all goes well, Mr. Miura says, it will take three years to empty Ishinomaki's giant rubbish collection centers.

Even that seems ambitious. In Iwate, for example, the prefecture's own recycling facilities would need more than 20 years to process all the waste that is piled up in its towns and villages, according to Mr. Kagawa. That means that much of it will have to be transported to facilities elsewhere in the country.

Steep mountains make transport to the west difficult. Trash cannot be driven south, either, because only one coastal road is open, "and if they used it for waste disposal vehicles," Kagawa says, "there will be no room on it for any other traffic."

So the best option left is to ship trash elsewhere by boat. But Iwate's ports were destroyed by the tsunami, and no one yet knows when they will reopen.

Elsewhere, the scale of the job of recycling has simply overwhelmed Japan's infrastructure.

Several cities have put the scrap metal up for auction, in an attempt to empty their parking lots piled high with the remains of crushed vehicles. "They invited bids, pile by pile, but the problem is that the piles are too enormous," explains Keiichi Watanabe, who heads the Japanese Iron and Steel Recycling Institute. "Normal sized scrap dealers cannot handle them; in some cities nobody put in any bids."

Complications: seawater, radiation

Even when the 25 million tons of rubbish is cleared from the streets and makeshift waste centers, and loads start to arrive at recycling centers, new issues will need to be addressed. Timber that is too full of salt from the seawater, for example, cannot be burned in biofuel ovens to generate electricity, so special incinerators will be needed.

Sendai, the city furthest along in dealing with this issue, has only just started taking bids for the construction of such incinerators, says Kagawa.

Other waste, such as that from Fukushima Prefecture near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors that went into partial meltdown after the tsunami, is radioactive. Scrap steel from there can be safely reĀ­smelted, says Mr. Watanabe, but the process will leave radioactive slag, which will probably have to be buried somewhere.

Seawater and radiation contamination will certainly make it more complicated to handle the waste, says Watanabe: "In the end we will be able to deal with it all, but the question is how many months and years it will take."

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