Washington Post - 18 Nov 08

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305

(Copied 30 Oct 09)

Japan's Trash Technology Helps Deodorize Dumps in Tokyo

By Blaine Harden
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

TOKYO -- It doesn't smell like a dump.

If it did, there are a quarter-million neighbors to complain about Tokyo's Toshima Incineration Plant, which devours 300 tons of garbage a day, turning it into electricity, hot water and a kind of recyclable sand.

Japan burns more garbage in the heart of its big cities than any developed country. The Toshima plant is one of 21 factory-size incinerators that operate around the clock amid Tokyo's 12 million densely packed residents.

Remarkably, this does not create a big stink, literally or politically.

"There is no smoke or odor coming from the incinerators," said Hideki Kidohshi, a garbage analyst at the Japan Research Institute.

While the United States buries most garbage in landfills, Japan burns about three-quarters of its trash in the world's largest armada of incinerators. All this burning raised dioxin levels in Japan to dangerously high levels in the 1990s, but technological advances have since corrected the problem. "All in all, the dioxin issue has been conquered," Kidohshi said.

Besides not being smelly, smoky or deadly, Japan's urban incinerators are often not ugly. Indeed, many are architecturally significant and some are social hotspots.

The renowned architect Yoshio Taniguchi, designer of the expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York, also designed Hiroshima's incineration plant, an eye-catching tourist attraction that the architect has called "my museum of garbage."

Here in Tokyo, about 186,000 people a year frequent the Toshima Incineration Plant. These visitors, most of whom live in the neighborhood, come to swim and exercise in the plant's handsome and affordable fitness center.

The center was added to the incinerator complex when it was built in the late 1990s to appease neighbors appalled by the prospect of millions of tons of garbage being burned in their back yard.

Those neighbors now swim in a pool heated by burning garbage. They work out in rooms lighted by electricity generated from a steam-driven turbine linked to the furnace that burns the garbage. Surplus electricity, enough for 20,000 homes, is sold into the grid. The complex also has a health clinic for the elderly.

Ash from the incinerator is melted into a sandy slag used in asphalt, bricks and concrete.

All these outstanding achievements in incineration are the result of grim necessity -- and massive government spending.

Japan is small, mountainous and densely populated. Landfills near Tokyo and elsewhere are filling up fast, despite the relatively abstemious garbage-producing ways of the Japanese, who throw out half as much garbage per day as Americans do.

Sorting trash is a serious civic responsibility here. In the eastern Japanese town of Kamikatsu, residents are required to compost all food waste and sort other garbage into 34 different bins for recycling.

In Tokyo, the rules are less onerous but far from lax. Bottles and cans must be rinsed before being placed in containers for curbside pickup. A rubber hose cannot be tossed out until it is cut into pieces measuring less than 20 inches. Milk and juice containers must be flattened before discarding. Neighbors notice -- and often complain -- if someone ignores the rules.

Lack of landfill space pushed Tokyo officials last year to expand the list of household trash that can legally be placed in the incinerator-bound "combustibles" bin that every householder keeps in the kitchen, along with bins for recyclables and non-combustibles. The garbage that can now be burned includes soiled plastic, plastic foam and rubber.

On a recent morning at the Toshima incinerator, Shino Yasuo, the plant manager, showed off his immaculate garbage-intake bay. He proudly explained why -- despite the comings and goings of 300 or so garbage trucks a day -- it smells so fine.

"We wash it frequently and we burn all the odious odors," he said.

Air pressure within the plant is kept at slightly negative levels, which draws in fresh air from the neighborhood and keeps bad smells from seeping out. Air that comes into contact with the giant bunker where smelly garbage is dumped before burning is constantly sucked up into the incinerator, which operates at an odor-obliterating 8,500 degrees centigrade.

The incinerator's smokestack is the tallest in Japan. At 689 feet, it is about 134 feet taller than the Washington Monument. It was built so tall for one reason: so the colorless carbon dioxide, water vapor and trace amounts of toxic particulates that come out of it will drift clear of a nearby skyscraper.

Building 21 incinerators inside Tokyo has been hugely expensive. The Toshima plant cost $140 million when it was completed in 1997, which experts say is far more than it would cost to build such a plant in North America.

Land in Tokyo is some of the most expensive in the world, and the entire project was delayed for nearly eight years, as city officials resolved neighborhood concerns. Before it could be built, they had to sweeten the deal with state-of-the art noise and traffic suppression, as well as the recreation and health centers.

"Unless local residents consent, construction doesn't begin," said Kidohshi, the garbage expert at the Japan Research Institute. "The negotiations go very deep, but once an incinerator starts operating, residents co-exist with it."

Still, there are complaints. A city spokesman said they usually are about noise and dust from periodic renovation projects. Neighbors also complain that tall smokestacks interfere with cellphone and wireless broadband reception.

But plant manager Yasuo is confident that his complex never stinks.

In rare cases when neighbors do complain about the smell of garbage under his management, he says they are almost always mistaken.

"When we receive a complaint about the odor, we will send our staff to check on what really happened in the area," Yasuo said. "We check wind direction, and almost all the time there is no connection between our facility and the complaint."

Complaints about odor coming from the Toshima plant are indeed rare. Last year, according to city officials, there was one.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.