With World Environment Day around the corner, Tokyo's mounting problems with garbage are literally under fire. Stuart Braun investigates.

"Tokyo - World Dioxin Capital," read a banner hung by Greenpeace activists next to Toshima Ward's towering waste incinerator, the tallest on the planet. Emitting 40 percent of the world's dioxins-a byproduct of burnt plastic, which has been linked to cancers and birth defects-has earned Japan this dubious title. And this dangerous and destructive method of garbage disposal shows no signs of letting up. In April, the looming specter of yet another mega-incinerator began spewing smoke over Shibuya on a trial basis, adding to the more that 2000 municipal incinerators - by comparison, the US has fewer than 200 - currently in operation throughout the country. But just how far Japan can push the ecological envelope remains to be seen. As the menacing cloud of concentrated dioxins overshadows more and more of our fair megalopolis, the obvious question is why would a global economic and technological leader continue to poison its own atmosphere?

Tower of Babel:
the latest dioxin-producing incinerator in the heart of Shibuya
Photos by Stuart Braun

Towering inferno
There is, apparently, a good reason why Tokyo is burning most its trash. Space constraints mean that landfill capacity is close to exhaustion - four million tons of household waste are dumped into Tokyo Bay each year, and with over 250 hectares of new land having already been created, the entire bay will disappear within decades. Waste burning has then been the masterstroke in saving Tokyo's voracious consumers from drowning in their own refuse. But Ayako Sekine, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace Japan, doubts that the practice is sustainable. "The government's pro-incineration waste policy needs to be thoroughly reviewed and revamped, with greater emphasis being placed on waste-minimization and recycling. Japan's mindless incineration program has virtually become a high-priced dioxin manufacturing scheme that the government has been unable to deal with in a significant way."

While Japan has frequently been portrayed as a global ecological vandal - under fire for drift-net fishing, the slaughter of whales and dolphins and the logging of virgin rainforests - environmental problems at home attract less attention. Anyone living in Japan who has noticed, among other things, the extreme over-packaging, the willful disposal of household appliances, and the mania for PET bottles and aluminum cans dispensed through the countries 20,000,000 vending machines might have wondered how the diminutive island copes.

In Tokyo, it seems that greenies and eco-terrorists are not the only ones expressing concern. Local residents have started to question why Japan is home to two-thirds of the world's waste incinerators, with a number of community groups pressuring local ward offices - who oversee waste management - to improve and expand recycling programs. The issue was ignited in early 1999 after word was leaked that dioxin had tainted vegetables and other produce from around Saitama. Additionally, dioxin levels in fish from Tokyo Bay are said to be ten times the acceptable level, a product of the toxic ash used for much of the landfill in the area. The concern is not surprising. Scientists have identified over 200 toxic byproducts from the combustion of municipal solid waste-heavy metals, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and highly toxic compounds such as dioxins and furans-with many of these contributing to the broader problem of global warming.

Emission remission
In combating the headlong rush to incineration, the buzzword, particularly among Tokyo's environmental intelligentsia, is "zero-emissions," a term coined by the Zero Emissions Program (ZEP) currently being conducted at the United Nations University in Tokyo. A radical prescription for emissions elimination and the promotion of the total use of raw materials and biomass wastes, zero emissions goes beyond promoting environmentally-friendly technologies and involves a revolution in the production process.

Dr Motoyuki Suzuki, head of ZEP, says that recycling will not necessarily reduce consumer consumption - PET plastic bottles production, for instance, more than doubled between 1996 and 2000 to a staggering 360,000 tons, canceling out a 40 per cent increase in PET recycling. For ZEP, the only way to combat "throw-away" consumer culture is to produce goods that can be reused and have a longer life span. Suzuki trumpets a move to a service-based economy in which manufacturers will make profits not by selling, but by renting, repairing and servicing durable commodities such as cars and household appliances. "Currently, when selling products, manufacturers just want them to be good-looking, cheap and easy to sell," says Suzuki. By contrast, when manufacturers continue to own the raw materials they will design products that are better quality, more easily repairable, and which, by default, will "utilize eco-design, use of eco-material and an eco-manufacturing system," concludes Suzuki.

It might be a utopian vision, but recent governmental initiatives are moving in this direction. The Home Appliances Recycling Law that took effect April 1 forces producers and consumers to pay a high premium for the dumping of home-electrical appliances, thus making it more economical to upgrade and repair your broken-down washing machine. In a bid to curb illegal dumping, the law also holds corporations responsible for the final stage of the disposal cycle for any goods they produce. Also taking effect in April was a new law aimed at promoting the recycling of food waste, meaning that organic refuse from homes and restaurants will be turned into fertilizer instead of toxic ash.

For all the good intent, government initiatives have been irregularly adopted and recycling options vary greatly between each ward. Ironically, Toshima Ward, home to the world's tallest incinerator, is conducting a trial for organic waste recycling, but the concept is a long way from being realized elsewhere. Other trial projects are under way, with the hospitality industry in Atami, in Shizuoka Prefecture, having collected 50 metric tons of chopsticks from hotels and restaurants to be turned into recycled paper. In most wards, however, recycling is limited to PET bottles - which have to be lugged to the convenience store - glass bottles, aluminum cans and cardboard, while the rest is being torched or is adding to the land reclamation project around Tokyo Bay.

Growing gomi: public enemy number one

Caveat emptor
Ultimately, it's up to the individual to reverse the problem, says Hiroyuki Sata, Deputy Director General of the Tokyo-based Green Purchasing Network (GPN), a non-governmental body established with the aim of advising manufacturers to create eco-friendly products and consumers to buy products that impart minimal environmental "load." "The biggest problem in Japan is the consumer. While people are very aware of environmental problems, they don't act on them," he says. "People don't consider deeply the wider ramifications when selecting products," he adds, noting that cost and convenience remain the underlying concerns for consumers. A service-based economy might, therefore, be the only way to jog citizens from their lethargy. "We can reduce resource consumption or waste through longer usage, repairing, rentals and sharing."

While Japanese consumers have failed to attain the heightened environmental consciousness current elsewhere - particularly in bastions of sustainable urban living such as Germany or Scandinavia - Japan's high tech producers are leading the way in eco-design. GPN has successfully co-opted stationery manufacturers to stop the use of PVC - a common source of dioxin pollution-in pens and stationery material. Car manufacturers are also doing their part, having been encouraged to develop hybrid-powered vehicles utilizing pollutant-free gas and electric fuel sources. The ultra-low-emission Toyota Prius, powered by gas and electricity, is the world's first hybrid car of its type, and BMW Japan in May showcased four hydrogen-powered prototypes.

While the glut of household waste might be an immediate environmental concern for Tokyoites, premature exposure to global warming - rising tides, depleted fish stocks, melting glaciers, extreme weather patterns - is compounding Japan's parlous ecological state. The prognosis is grim, even for the average sushi-eater. Japan consumes 33 percent of the world's fish catch, but latest figures from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries show that the fishing haul from oceans around the archipelago has fallen 46 percent in ten years. While the ocean is warming, the fish are moving north to colder waters and the catch from the Sea of Japan has fallen by an alarming 62 percent since 1990, meaning that your favorite sashimi might soon be off the menu.

The issue of emissions reduction has become a greater priority for a country which, the second largest per capita polluter in the world, is starting to heat up a little more than it would like. But while incoming Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro has stated his willingness to reach the emission reduction targets set in Kyoto in 1997, vowing to replace all government automobiles with low-emission vehicles, waste reduction remains the big issue. "In order to establish a recycling society, I will take steps to limit waste, promote recycling and prevent illegal dumping… In order to greatly reduce the amount of waste, the Cabinet will advocate a Zero Waste Operation," the new PM said in his introductory speech to the nation.

Beer is leading the way here. In 1997, ZEP used beer drinking as a test case for zero-waste industrial production. Brewery wastes (spent grains, yeast, water and CO2) can easily be put to other industrial uses, and ZEP pilot projects have, among other things, demonstrated how spent grain can be used for bio-gas production. Motivated by the burgeoning cost of dumping industrial waste, Asahi breweries have moved toward eco-manufacturing, too. Their zero-waste operating plan includes using beer dregs as cattle feed, making carpets out of the plastic bands used for packing, creating bathtub bases out of plastic bags, using bottle tops as construction material and turning cardboard into recycled paper.

Highway to hell: Tokyo's relentless emission-emitting expressway network

Doing your bit
As industries attempt to reduce their own waste, they are continuing to deluge consumers with goods that are ending up in the incinerator, or worse still, on the beach. Japan's bays, beaches and estuaries are clogged with cans, bottles and plastic bags, and it will take a shift in consumer awareness to reverse the trend. People are starting to act, however. "I don't want to preach, I don't consider myself an environmentalist… people don't want to be forced to do anything… I just don't like seeing trash down at the beach," says Geoff Torkington, co-coordinator of the Gomi Hiroi (Trash Pick-up) Project. Endeavoring to clean up the beaches around Tokyo and environs, the project follows in the footsteps of the Clean Up the World campaign. Torkington, who with a group of friends started handing out garbage bags to the public around Enoshima Island, found that people, when given the chance, were willing to get their hands dirty - on this occasion, over 20 large bags of rubbish were collected in less than four hours.

The foreign community is doing its bit elsewhere. The Tokyo-based International Green Network (IGN) has recently brought foreign and local residents together in an effort to halt plans to extend the Chuo Expressway through Mt Takao, one of Tokyo's few remaining pristine natural sites - home to the goshawk, the giant flying squirrel and the Hachioji Castle ruins. But as Greater Tokyo's population continues to swell - 27 million at last count - and car manufacturers sell more vehicles, the omniscient Metropolitan Expressway network extends its unremitting girth across the city.

World Environment Day (June 5) brings Tokyo's environmental perils into the spotlight. Industry and government are starting to act on the zero waste mantra, but while consumers continue to be governed, as Sato reiterates, "by cost and convenience," giving little thought to the destination of that plastic drink bottle or bento box, Tokyo could soon be drowning in its own toxic trash.



395: Generation Next
The world-first launch of NTT DoCoMo’s third generation mobile phone network represents a quantum leap into mobile cyberspace. Stuart Braun goes online.
394: Sister act
Celeb sisters Kyoko and Mika Kano have taken Japan by storm, but can they win over the West? Chris Betros and Maki Nibayashi spend an evening with the divine duo.
393: Reel time
Matt Wilce gets a close-up of the Tokyo International Film Festival's hottest tickets.
392: Lap it up
Michael Schumacher is champion again, but the unpredictable Suzuka circuit is still set to offer up a surprise-packed Japan Grand Prix on October 14. Stuart Braun goes trackside.
391: Everything old is new
You might think Azabu Juban is all swanky dining and dancing 'till dawn.....
390: Cooking the books
Celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s in town with his new book in hand.....
389: Up from the underground
Japan's literary superstar Haruki Murakami is home for the duration
388: First wave
John McGee dives into Japan's art extravaganza
387: Water world
Matt Wilce explores Tokyo DisneySea
386: Open house
Many people are sleeping on the streets of Tokyo
385: A moveable feast
Some of the city's best yatai fare
384: Hair
A look at Tokyo's salon industry
383: Summer in the city
20 ways to make August a little more bearable
382: Tokyo Tomorrow
Stuart Braun tracks the future of the metropolis
381: From zero to hero
81-year-old Zero fighter Sadamu Komachi looks back
380: Island escapade
Journey to Odaiba
379: Open-air fare
Tokyo's alfresco dining spots
378: Reel story
Reel in the summer's hottest movies
377: Sonic relief
Gear up for the summer's hottest music festivals
376: All at sea
No shortage of fun in the sun on the beach
375: Your cup of tea
Tea time in Tokyo
374: No time to waste
Tokyo's mounting problems with garbage
373: Freetown
Tokyo's stylish suburb, Jiyugaoka
372: Broken record
Tokyo's ecclectic array of record stores
371: Bottoms up
Tokyo's finest martini bars
370: Admit one
Regulations for foreigners wanting to live and work on Japan
369: After a fashion
Spring trends from the catwalks to the streets
368: Bandwidth wagon
Japan's move towards DSL
367: Just for sports
How to play ball this summer
366: Life's a hitch
Helpful hints for hitch hiking in Japan
365: Altered state
Try Tokyo's tailors on for size
364: The Fringe Club
Shinjuku's infamous Golden Gai bar district
363: Take two Tomatos
Design gurus Michael Horsham and Steve Baker
362: Stage left
Innovative and intimate shogekijo (little theaters)
361: The lowdown on TC
Everything you ever wanted to know about TC, but were afraid to ask
360: A reversal of fortune
Tokyo's home of racing, Fuchu Racecourse
359: Funny Valentine
How to do Valentine's Day in Japan
358: Two-faced
Heartthrob Katsunori Takahashi
357: Read all about it comes to Japan
356: Daikanyama
Central Tokyo's hippest hood
355: Wash out
Heaven Sento
354: Means to an end
Some good ideas to inspire you
352/3: Last Laugh
TC's rosey re-cap of the year
Signs of the times
Horoscopes for 2001
351: It's a wrap
TC's holiday gift tips
350: Cable ready
Cable and satellite broadcasting renaissance



What can you do:

Waste disposal and recycling
While disposal differs between each ward, wastage should be separated as much as possible, particularly to ensure that dioxin-producing plastics don't end up in the incinerator. There is a general rule of thumb for most wards.

Burnable waste: organic waste, wastepaper, clothing, milk/juice containers. Picked up three times a week.

Non-burnable waste (bunbetsugomi/moenaigomi): plastics, metals, Styrofoam, leather, pottery, cutlery, fluorescent lamps, emptied spray cans, batteries. Picked up once a week.

Bulky household objects: Furniture, electric appliances, bicycles, TVs, microwave ovens and air conditioners. Picked up twice monthly and incur disposal fees depending on the ward.

Recycling: Aluminum cans, newspapers, magazines and cardboard boxes are recycled as part of the regular garbage pick-up in most wards. Organic waste is being added to the list in several wards. PET bottles can be recycled at most convenience stores. Foam packaging trays can be recycled at some supermarkets.

Walk, ride or take the train: Tokyo roads are congested with more than nine million CO2 producing cars and trucks each day.

Take your own carry bag and say no to plastic bags.

Try to buy eco-friendly products (look out for eco-labeling or call the Green Purchasing Network) and avoid over-packaged items.

Turn your lights off when not in use.

This summer, use a fan instead of CFC-producing air-conditioners.

Green Purchasing Network
Tel: 03-3406-4155

Greenpeace Japan
Tel: 03-5351-5417 

International Green Network

Friends of the Earth Japan
Tel: 03-3951-1081

Gomi Hiroi Project
Tel: 090-4702-3531