Putting 220 tons of garbage a day where it belongs

The city of Machida, on the western hilly outskirts of Tokyo, is the ''garbage capital of Japan'' - and proud of the title. City authorities are developing a new philosophy for coping with the rapidly growing amounts of waste materials created by an increasing population and the throwaway culture of modern society.

This is no longer your basic smelly city refuse dump of rotting food, rusting cans and bicycle frames, broken bottles, and filthy rags. In Machida today, neatly packaged refuse disappears into a sparkling new office block as clean and antiseptic as a hospital.

The operation is not even called ''garbage disposal'' anymore. It is a ''recycling culture center.''

Unsightly pieces of equipment like crushers and incinerators are discreetly screened by lush tropical vegetation that thrives in the heat and humidity provided by burning garbage.

Almost everything has its use. Machida officials boast they recycle 90 percent of the refuse. Rotting food becomes fertilizer. Burning garbage provides heat and electricity; the residue is used in land reclamation.

Metals are reclaimed for industrial uses. Bottles are recycled. Discarded household furniture and appliances, clothing, and bicycles are renovated and sold at bargain prices or given to the needy.

When it became an independent city a quarter of a century ago, Machida had 60 ,000 people. Today it has 300,000 and generates some 220 tons of garbage a day.

Eight years ago, city officials realized they had problems and began to rethink the garbage disposal issue. The result was a $300 million recycling center that opened in mid-1982.

But what is cultural about refuse?

Operations executive Muneo Matsumoto explains: ''It stems from our basic philosophy that merely collecting and processing garbage does not solve the problem. A lot of waste today comes from our modern culture, with its emphasis on mass-produced plastic products and packaging.

''We have to change that culture from the very roots. We have to reconsider our entire way of life, because that is the only way to reduce garbage. We wanted our citizens to think about this concept, so we decided to use the word culture in our official name.''

The city has educated every household to divide garbage into specific categories (combustible, noncombustible, polluting or poisonous, recyclable, etc.). This process, which includes packaging refuse neatly for collection by city garbage workers, is the only time anyone gets his hands dirty.

Anything that cannot be given a new lease on life disappears into a computerized processing system that sorts, reclaims useful materials like metals , crushes the rest, and burns what it can.

No longer does anyone who has accidentally thrown away the family fortune have a hope of crawling through a rubbish dump to find it. Within hours, it has all been disposed of.

''In fact, we can't find enough garbage to keep things moving,'' laments Seiji Matsuda, a senior operations official.

Ash from the burnt rubbish is mixed with cement to produce landfill that will eventually become a major recreation center.

A lot more could be done. Heat and electricity produced by burning garbage (at present a maximum of 4,000 kilowatt-hours) could be piped to city homes, offices, and other facilities, but this is barred by law and would trespass on the exclusive prerogative of the local power company. City officials are lobbying to change the law.

This same heat and power could grow food year-round under greenhouse conditions, but that would raise problems as to how to distribute the produce and what to do with any profit.

One area of the center is filled with furniture, household appliances, bicycles, and clothing that are being repaired by handicapped volunteers. Eighty percent of these items are sold at bargain prices - and the money used to rehabilitate the handicapped. The rest is given to the elderly, needy families, or refugees.

Only ''polluting garbage'' - like plastic, old batteries, and mirrors, whose disposal would cause environmental problems - is not recycled.

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