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After Japan disaster, disposing of waste creates dilemmas

After the quake and tsunami, Japan faces legal, financial, logistical, environmental and ethical questions on dealing with debris — from ships and smashed cars to waterlogged heirlooms and soiled family photos.

April 03, 2011|By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times
  • A worker lifts a destroyed car from a mound of debris in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture. The earthquake and tsunami generated an estimated 80 million tons of debris.
A worker lifts a destroyed car from a mound of debris in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture.… (AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Tokyo — For days on end, 23-year-old Hiraku Sato and a co-worker toiled in their pharmacy in Tagajo City, picking through hundreds of small containers of vitamin drinks, aspirin and other medicines that were flung to the four corners of their shop when ocean waters from nearly a mile away rushed in.

A 4-foot-high mound of metal shelves, broken computers and other retail detritus was still massed this week outside the store in the northeastern coastal community. But Sato, wearing a white mask and knee-high rubber boots, beamed with satisfaction at what he had organized inside: blue, green and pink baskets packed with unopened but mud-caked bottles and boxes.

"I was really upset when I came here and saw the mess," he said. But now that he's been able to salvage a few things, he added, he could see some hope for recovery — never mind that customers might not want the dirty products, or that the street outside still looked like a total wasteland.

"I don't know when, where or how they'll clean this up," he said with a sigh.

In the best of times, one man's trash is another man's treasure. But in the wake of Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the nation is facing complex legal, financial, logistical, environmental and ethical questions over just how to deal with at least 80 million tons of debris — from 300-ton ships and smashed cars to waterlogged heirlooms and soiled family photos.

The central government said Tuesday that it would foot the bill for the cleanup; normally, it covers half of local governments' waste disposal costs. The expense is only beginning to be tabulated, but it's expected to far exceed the $3.2 billion required to dispose of 15 million tons of debris in the Japanese city of Kobe after its 1995 earthquake.

Still being sorted out are such nitty-gritty questions as: How long will owners of waterlogged autos — who might need their license plates to file insurance claims — be given to claim their vehicles? Can cleanup crews unilaterally bulldoze demolished structures, or do they need approval from property owners? What should be done if sentimental or valuable items are recovered amid the junk?

Certain valuables already pose their own challenges. Japan Self-Defense Forces troops working in southern Miyagi prefecture reportedly came across a 45-pound safe beneath a collapsed house. They couldn't open it, and there was nothing on the safe to indicate where it came from.

Waste management specialists are now debating whether the vast amounts of debris — called gareki in Japanese — can be tested for toxics such as asbestos, dioxins and PCBs. While the debris remains wet, asbestos can't disperse into the air. But when the dry season arrives, dangerous particles could be inhaled. And then, of course, there are fears of radiation contamination from the disaster-battered Fukushima nuclear plant.

For the time being, parks, baseball fields and stadiums are being used as temporary dumps. But longer term, there are serious questions about where in an already space-challenged island nation the trash can be disposed of.

Kazuyuki Akaishi, a waste and recycling expert at the Japan Research Institute, said estimates of the volume of tsunami and earthquake debris range from 80 million to 200 million tons. In a typical year, the entire country generates about 71 million tons of household waste and more than 400 million tons of industrial waste, according to the Environment Ministry. (Los Angeles' Sunshine Canyon landfill, by comparison, takes in about 2.3 million tons of waste annually.)

Japan's National Police Agency says 18,000 houses collapsed and that about 140,000 others were partially damaged. In Miyagi prefecture alone, an estimated 146,000 cars were destroyed, and more may yet be found as tsunami-inundated areas dry out.

The trash problems extend beyond the quake and tsunami zone. In Tokyo, which normally burns trash 24 hours a day, everyday garbage is piling up because post-quake power shortages have forced incinerators to curtail operations by as much as a third.

Additional refuse washed out to sea and is expected to reach Hawaii in about two years and Alaska a year later, according to Nikolai Maximenko, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii who studies ocean currents.

In normal times, Japan's meticulous approach to waste and recycling is the stuff of legend; it's not just a matter of separating paper from plastic, or glass from aluminum — cities here publish detailed guides for properly disposing of everything from used chopsticks to lipstick.

Special bags must be used. Collection schedules are strict. To ignore the rules is to risk being reprimanded by a local volunteer trash monitor, or shunned by neighbors.

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