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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Cars destroyed by the March 11 tsunami are stacked in piles near the port city of Sendai, Japan. A century’s worth of trash was generated in 45 minutes, one official estimates.

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.

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.

There are 17 such collection sites in Ishinomaki alone. In the three coastal prefectures most badly hit by the earthquake and tsunami – Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima – there are scores more.

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.

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 re­smelted, 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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