Reeking and leaking trash settles Tokyo rebels' hash

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

December 15, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- This is a true story about what can happen if you don't satisfy the garbage man that you are separating burnable trash from nonburnable in the world's most densely populated metropolis.

The Bureau of Public Cleansing can stop collecting the stuff.

Great mounds of plastic bags can pile up outside your home. They can reek and leak there for weeks or months, blocking the sidewalk and overflowing into the street.

How long they go on piling up depends on how long it takes you to take a pledge that you will obey some of the world's most detailed trash-separation rules.

The latest place to feel the wrath of the garbage man has been Daimachi, a neighborhood in the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji.

Garbage men put up a sign last May warning that Daimachi was not properly separating burnable wood, papers and other debris from non-burnable cans, bottles and batteries.

Someone responded by putting a bag of garbage on top of the sign.

After that, the garbage crews let Daimachi see who was in charge.

Bags piled up first in the dooryards of mid-rise apartment buildings. Soon they began to take over parking spaces, which can cost more here than two-bedroom condominiums at Baltimore's Cross Keys. After a few weeks they began to overflow onto sidewalks.

Halfway into the fourth month, they merged into a stinking, unbroken, block-long ridge as high as an adult's hips. They covered most of the sidewalk on one side of the street. A small, steady stream of murky fluid flowed a half-block down a gutter to a storm drain.

A few weeks ago, the residents gave in and agreed to separate their burnables from their nonburnables.

The garbage men had won by using the most powerful weapon of the Orient, patience. They didn't live where the mess was building up.

Tokyo garbage men deal with a colossal headache.

The city will produce about 5 million tons of garbage and trash this year. That is 25 percent more than it produced eight years ago, in a place that doesn't know where it will put its refuse after about March 1996.

That is when the biggest landfill in Tokyo Bay, the last under city jurisdiction, is expected to fill up.

Like many coastal cities, Tokyo has been creating desperately needed new land by dumping trash and garbage into the waters around it for more than 100 years.

A century ago, when Japan was newly opening to the world and needed a place for foreign diplomats and merchants in its already-crowded capital city, the place it found was called Tsukiji. The name literally means "newly filled dumping ground." Embassy dispatches from those days contain paragraphs on the fragrance of the summer air and graphic accounts of battles with rodents and insects.

The bay was so easy to use for so long that now it's too late for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to look for open land for another dump. There hasn't been open land here on that scale in decades.

And so the city government has launched the Emergency Garbage Reduction Action Program, an all-out drive to stretch the life of the Tokyo Bay landfill.

"We got a break when the economy slowed down after 1989," said Hiroshi Ninomiya, a section chief of the sanitation bureau. "But that's temporary. We have to get companies to recycle and get stores to cut down on excess wrapping."

Government agents visit department stores, supermarkets and wholesalers to break down the Japanese mania for wrapping and re-wrapping every item. Each cookie in a box is often individually wrapped in foil or plastic, and the box is wrapped in a fancy store paper before being placed in an elegantly printed bag.

One key to the plan is to burn ever-higher percentages of Tokyo's refuse to reduce the amount that goes into the bay.

That is why the city has become so strict about separating burnable materials from nonburnable.

But even places for incinerators are getting hard to find.

The government wants to build 10 new incinerators to augment the 13 already working, but local opposition has brought construction of new ones virtually to a halt.

"We are close to the time when the Tokyo government simply cannot solve the city's refuse problem alone," Mr. Ninomiya said. "We need the help of the national government or other local governments."

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