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Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007

Plastic incineration rise draws ire

Environmentalists unswayed by limited tests, fear risks

Staff writer

Environmentalists are against a decision by Tokyo authorities to incinerate large volumes of plastic with other waste and using the heat to generate electricity — a practice agencies say is necessary to save space at municipal dumps but activists say is hazardous and costly.

News photo
A man jogs near the Tamagawa Incineration Plant in Tokyo's Ota Ward on Wednesday. Ota Ward started collecting plastics as burnable waste on Oct. 1. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

On Oct. 1, Tokyo's Ota Ward started collecting plastics together with other refuse headed for incineration plants, broadening an experimental program launched last year and breaking with a three-decade practice in central Tokyo of barring plastic from furnaces.

Tokyo's other 22 wards have also begun mixing in small amounts of plastic in test districts and are expected to adopt the "thermal recycling" measure in full next year. Plastic is already incinerated in other major cities, including Osaka and Nagano.

The controversy raises important questions about how Japan — which incinerates almost 80 percent of its garbage, a higher rate than any other developed country — can balance the mass-consumerism driving its economy with the need to manage the consequential waste, and do so in an ecologically sustainable manner.

The Environment Ministry, for its part, describes incineration as vital from both geographic and sanitary standpoints.

"It is an appropriate means of waste disposal in a country with limited space allocable to garbage dumps, and where the summers are hot and humid," says a 2007 white paper, calling Japan's incineration technology "world class." In line with that philosophy, the number of cities incinerating plastics is reportedly growing.

But Junichi Sato, a longtime antipollution campaigner at Greenpeace Japan called the change in policy a "reversal."

"They've built too many incinerators, and this is clearly about filling excess capacity by burning plastic," he said, adding, "Of course, there is the possibility of toxins being released into the atmosphere."

There were 1,319 incinerators across Japan in 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, according to an Environment Ministry report. The average Japanese produced 1.1 kg of garbage a day during the same period. Both numbers are on the downtrend, the report said.

Plastic items collectable as part of the Ota Ward thermal recycling include toys, plastic foam food containers, CDs and videocassettes, detergent containers and plastic shopping bags. PET bottles and plastic food trays will be collected separately and processed into new plastic products. Also excluded from burnable waste are glass, ceramics, light bulbs, batteries, electronic appliances and aluminum foil.

Plastic from the 23 wards had been kept out of furnaces on concern that incinerating it releases dangerous levels of the carcinogen dioxin into the atmosphere.

But Shojiro Kobayashi, head of planning at Clean Association of Tokyo 23 — a semi-governmental body set up by Tokyo's 23 wards to manage waste — said citizens should not be concerned about pollution from the smokestacks or waterways.

"In our view, measurements indicate that there is absolutely no ill effect on the environment surrounding (incinerators)," said Kobayashi, a chemical engineer by training. "We have lots of data."

Kobayashi said a round of technological improvements at incinerators concluding in 2002 succeeded in removing dioxin from incineration exhaust, with the added benefit that other harmful emissions were cut as well.

Consequently, testing of the smoke from the incineration of garbage containing plastic over the past year at two plants in Ota Ward revealed safe levels for 27 harmful substances, including dioxin, Kobayashi said.

Samples were taken inside the smokestacks at Tamagawa Incineration Plant and Tokyo Metropolitan Ota Incineration Plant. Also among the 27 substances covered by the test were heavy metals such as dust-borne lead, cadmium, manganese and mercury, as well as benzopyrene, a carcinogen of particular concern to environmentalists.

Clean Association also twice sampled for pollutants, albeit a narrower list, at locations surrounding the Tamagawa Incineration Plant and once near the Tokyo Metropolitan Ota Incineration Plant. In each case, pollutants were found to be at acceptable levels.

But experts at pollution watchdog Environmental Research Institute Tokyo remain skeptical, in part because the ratio of plastic was so small during the trial incineration runs — a maximum 21.5 percent of total garbage in an April test at the Tamagawa Incineration Plant and as small as 0.8 percent in the most recent test run at the Tokyo Metropolitan Ota Incineration Plant, in April.

"There's no scientific basis to it, but what they've done is burn a tiny bit of plastic and then go about making explanations as if they've burned a lot," said Atsushi Takatori, director of research and planning at the institute. (Clean Association said metering will continue at all incinerators as the ratio of incinerated plastic increases across the 23 wards.)

Takatori, whose training was in mechanical engineering, slammed a similar trial plastic incineration by Clean Association in Shinagawa Ward in August 2006. Similar to the Ota Ward trials, sampling of flue exhaust at the Shinagawa test was taken over a two-day period before they started burning plastic and over a five-day period afterward.

"Nobody can claim that a scientific experiment — an experiment that takes one measurement, then one other measurement — has any meaning whatsoever," Takatori said.

He also questioned Clean Association's methodology for sampling in the areas surrounding smokestacks, saying they did not sufficiently account for wind variation and probably occurred in locations where smoke did not fall to the surface anyway.

According to maps provided by Clean Association, the off-site testing around the Tamagawa Incineration Plant took place at seven spots at an average distance from the incinerator of 886 meters to the north, south, east and west.

However, only a quarter-circle was covered by the seven spots near the Tokyo Metropolitan Ota Incineration Plant because, according to Clean Association's Kobayashi, it was difficult to gain permission to test inside Haneda airport, which occupies much of the remaining radius. Those testing sites were an average 1,807 meters from the incinerator.

In addition to pollution, of course, is the issue of global warming.

On the one hand, Clean Association acknowledges that incinerating large volumes of plastic will result in an annual 166,000 ton, or 1.4 percent, increase in Tokyo's emissions of greenhouse gases in fiscal 2008 from the current fiscal year.

Most of that, however, is expected to be offset by reductions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane rising from landfill sites, since food and other biodegradable residue on plastic will go into the flames rather than decompose, according to Clean Association's Web site.

Also, some 17 percent of energy contained in the calorie-rich plastic will be "recovered" when heat from incineration is used to drive electric generators at the 21 incinerators across central Tokyo, reducing emissions from electric utilities.

But opponents say this misses the point.

Yasuko Ueda, a writer and outspoken activist with the Tokyo-based Consumers Union of Japan, a nongovernmental organization, noted that the government has invoked the Containers and Packaging Recycling Law to require that plastics be re-used as "resources" to the greatest extent possible, but complained that her own ward, Setagaya, does far too little to either recycle plastic or curtail its production from the start.

Ueda said she estimated that waste plastic could be reduced by about half were the directive followed more aggressively.

"The amount of plastic that absolutely must be incinerated will be only a tiny amount and the (lifetime of dump sites) can be extended by 10 years and beyond," Ueda said. "If they just skip over those steps and categorize all that plastic as burnable," she continued, "don't you think that's wrongheaded?"

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