The disposal site and adjacent Central Breakwater landfills will become parks in the future. The area is part of a site roughly 1,000 hectares large sprawling southward from Odaiba, the artificial island facing central Tokyo. When it’s complete, the western half will be made of soil and will support a terminal for shipping containers. The eastern half, built of garbage, will eventually become green space with leisure facilities. One corner of this oasis of trash that’s already nearing completion is Umi no Mori (Groves on the Ocean). It’s a rolling park measuring 150 hectares, about the size of an average golf course. Its hilltop lookout is already covered with grass and fringed by pine trees. It offers sweeping views of the city’s waterfront and Tokyo Gate Bridge. Umi no Mori is slated to open sometime after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Future generations of Tokyoites will sun themselves here by the sea while relaxing on garbage.
Tokyo Gov. Ryokichi Minobe declared a “war on garbage” as the metropolis was choking on waste.
“Umi no Mori was created to turn something negative — the garbage from people’s everyday lives — into something positive,” says Nami Murakami of the Port of Tokyo’s Marine Parks Department. “It will give birth to an area of trees that are planted and cared for by Tokyoites, making a beautiful forest.”
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), before the era of mass production, Japanese people recycled much of what they used. However, things began to change with the rapid industrialization that began in the late 19th century. The first modern regulation on garbage management was the Waste Disposal Law of 1900, and Tokyo’s first garbage incinerator was set up in Osaki in 1924. Since 2000, the incinerators in the central capital have been managed by the Clean Authority of Tokyo 23 (CAT23), which was established by Tokyo’s 23 central wards.
Landfill construction of the Central Breakwater began in 1973, not long after Tokyo Gov. Ryokichi Minobe declared a “war on garbage” as the metropolis was choking on waste amid the high economic growth of the postwar era. The campaign is credited with raising Tokyoites’ awareness of the problem and smoothing opposition to new garbage facilities. Filling in the sea with trash, however, is a longstanding tradition. It goes back at least as far as the No. 8 landfill in Shiomi, Koto Ward, in the 1920s, which was followed by nearby Yumenoshima in the 1950s and Wakasu in the 1960s. As these dumps filled up, large-scale landfill work for both garbage disposal and cargo storage began farther out on Tokyo Bay, between the Tama and Arakawa estuaries.
From trash to ash
Turning garbage into land is the end result of an elaborately engineered process that’s all the more remarkable considering the city’s density. Tokyo lies at the heart of the world’s largest metropolitan area: more than 37 million people all told, including the capital’s own 13.5 million. And yet Tokyo manages to stay remarkably clean. If not immaculate, the streets are generally tidy and the air is breathable. That’s due in large part to how the city handles and burns its garbage.
This happens in three stages: collection; intermediate processing, including incineration and pulverization; and landfills. In 2014, Tokyo’s waste totaled 2.7 million tons, down from a record high of 4.9 million in 1989 during the height of the country’s asset-inflated bubble economy. Of that 2014 total, about one-eighth ended up in landfills on Tokyo Bay. The rest went up in smoke.
The journey of garbage begins with collection. Walk around any neighborhood and you’ll soon come across detailed roadside signs with colorful icons and weekly schedules. These govern the disposal of waste, and many visitors to Japan have noted how meticulous the rules can be. In Setagaya Ward, which has a population of about 910,800 people and is the largest of Tokyo’s wards, city officials publish a guide to garbage disposal and recycling facilities that’s 24 pages long.
Imagine the “Star Wars” Death Star trash compactor on steroids and you’ll get the idea.
Households and businesses separate their trash into burnable items (everything from kitchen scraps to plastic bags, paper and clothing) and nonburnable items (glass, metal, batteries, crockery and electronics) as well as recyclables. Typically, burnable garbage is collected twice a week, nonburnable twice a month and recyclable materials such as PET bottles, glass, newspapers and cardboard once a week; oversized trash and appliances are handled under a separate system.
When the garbage trucks are full, they roll to sites such as the Shinagawa Incineration Plant. Opened in March 2006 after extensive refurbishments to what was previously the Oi Incineration Plant, it’s a high-tech bonfire for trash. Equipped with two incinerators, the plant mainly handles burnable trash from Shinagawa Ward, with a daily capacity of 600 tons per day — about average for incinerators in the capital. That’s about the amount of waste produced by 600,000 people per day, but since the population of Shinagawa is only 392,000, it also handles trash from nearby locations such as Meguro Ward.
To track trash inflows, garbage trucks are weighed when they arrive at the plant. They dump their hauls from a large platform into the refuse bunker, a chasm-like structure, about 70 meters wide, that can hold up to four days’ worth of trash. Imagine the “Star Wars” Death Star trash compactor on steroids and you’ll get the idea. The stench in the bunker is overwhelming, so a forced draft fan keeps the internal air pressure lower than that outside to prevent it from escaping. Inside the bunker, two large cranes hang from gantries overhead like claws in a giant UFO catcher game. Operated either manually or automatically, the claws stir the accumulated trash to promote even burning. At regular intervals, they grab car-sized clumps and transfer them to a waste hopper leading into the furnaces. The entire operation is monitored around the clock from a central control room with live video feeds of the furnaces, bunker and other parts of the plant.
The furnaces are where all the plastic, food scraps, diapers, paper and all the other detritus of our lives goes up in flames. The incinerators have fire grates in the shape of staircases; if large metal objects such as box springs get in here, they can gum up the works and force a shutdown.
All this burning, however, produces byproducts. One is huge volumes of exhaust gas. This has to go through an extensive treatment process to reduce the environmental impact of toxins such as mercury and dioxins. By burning the waste at a high temperature of more than 850 degrees Celsius, the formation of dioxins can be kept in check, according to the plant and environmental experts.
“The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants requires the use of best available techniques to reduce the emission of dioxins,” says Eisaku Toda, a researcher with the U.N. Environment Program’s Chemicals and Waste Branch. “One of the elements of the best available technology is combustion at high temperature, which is described as 850 to 950 (degrees Celsius) for at least two seconds for municipal waste incinerators. The safety of exhaust gas from incinerators is regulated by national laws in many countries, including Japan.”
As the gas moves through pipes leading away from the incinerator, it is quickly cooled to 150 degrees Celsius to prevent dioxin resynthesis. The bag filter and gas scrubber stages of the treatment process then remove soot, dust, hydrogen chloride and sulfur oxide from the exhaust, which is then released into the air via a smokestack, free of hazardous materials, according to the plant.