Trash technology

When most purchases in Japan come individually wrapped, vacuum packed and bagged to boot, a two-minute trip to the conbini can leave you with more gomi than goodies. John Paul Catton looks at some innovative ways government and industry are tackling the trash.
Sanyo Gomi-Nice
Garbate made pretty: The Sanyo Gomi-Nice
Courtesy of Sanyo

Living in Japan is never guilt-free. Sure, convenience stores are everywhere, but what's going to happen to all that packaging after you've eaten the contents? Are you sure you've sorted your gomi (garbage) properly? Why is everyone talking about dioxin?

The facts are these: Dioxin is released when packaging materials containing chlorine or chlorine-based chemicals is burned. Japan's air contains nearly ten times the amount of dioxin found in other industrialized countries, with approximately 4kg released every year. A Japanese citizen produces on average 1kg of garbage a day, which means that Japan is probably the biggest source of waste polyvinyl chloride plastic in the world.

So what about the nonburnable gomi? Thanks to the current boom in sales of flavored water, mountains of waste PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles are being created. These and other waste products are disposed of in landfills, but it's estimated that Japan's total landfill space will be completely used up within thirty years.

Japan's Plastic Waste Management Institute, set up by MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry), is currently taking two approaches to the problem. The first is a "gasification" disposal technique, in which plastic is reduced to ammonia. The second is a treatment that converts it into byproducts usable in cement kilns, and also in the production of (strangely enough) more PVC. The Institute is always looking for ways to tackle the problem, but government and industry don't always see eye to eye; recently, the Japan Soft Drinks Association rejected a request to help pay for the costs of collecting used bottles.

Encouraging noises do occasionally come from the private sector. In May 1999, Fujitsu Ltd. released an "environmental balance sheet," the first Japanese company to calculate and publicly release detailed information on how large companies can prevent pollution and still land a profit. The calculations predicted that Fujitsu would soon be JY3.5 billion up. Many of Japan's largest companies have stated that they will follow suit and release similar "green" financial statements, but probably not this year.

With government and private industry making such slow progress, is there anything that the ordinary consumer can do? Well, more and more products are becoming available to reduce a household's production of garbage, and so treat the problem at its source. A brief selection of items include the Sanyo Gomi-Nice, a biodegrading garbage processor which can process organic waste into fertilizer; the Bulb-Eater from Matsukyu uses a carbon absorption system and particle filter to safely dispose of glass light fittings; the Sony Research Center has developed a technique that uses limonene, a substance extracted from citrus fruits, to dissolve expanded polystyrene ready for recycling; perhaps most impressively, EIN Engineering Inc. has developed a construction material made from shredded newspaper, advertising flyers, waste plastic, and wood chips. The material looks like wood, and costs about the same as lumber, but is stronger than aluminum alloy and is moisture-resistant. More recently, in October, Kajima Construction Co. announced the launch of a Tokyo plant that produces electricity directly from organic waste.

The best news has come from Japan's Society of Polymer Research. At their annual meeting in May it announced the results of tests concerning a new strain of "plastic-eating" bacteria which can dissolve low-density polyethylene, used widely in consumer goods. "But whether we can make a business out of the discovery is another question," stated Professor Ono Katsumichi of Ibaraki University. "Are companies willing to buy the technology by investing extra money?" We all have a share in learning the answer to that.

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