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Where does our trash go?

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-02-07

Trash has become a global problem, and for small islands like Okinawa, it poses an even larger threat to the general health of the environment and to human beings. The Prefectural Government has become gradually aware of the impending need to find a solution to the problem of disposing our waste, but planning and action has been very slow.

Currently Okinawa burns most of its trash, following the massive incineration program of mainland Japan, which started there in the 1950s. It is estimated that Japan is home to 70% of the world's incinerators, while Okinawa has 30 incinerators of its own, burning garbage on a daily basis. This number does not include the many smaller incinerators located at schools and small businesses, which also burn a fair amount of trash. Naha alone, which is home to about one fourth of the total population of the prefecture, burned 82.9% of its trash in 1995. The amount remains relatively the same today, as landfills are gradually filling up. Trash burned at Naha's one and only incinerator reaches about 240 to 250 tons a day. However, even at this incredible amount, it is still not enough to handle the total amount of the city's trash. The remaining amount, about 11.7% of it, needs to be sent to neighboring Urasoe to be incinerated.

The incineration process may have seemed to be a good idea when it was first initiated, but it has proven to be a very near-sighted solution. During the time when the incineration program was first started, Japan's lack of space presented a problem for trash disposal, and most of the trash during the 1950s was that of paper products and wood. Today, however, the story is different. Plastics and other substances that give off toxic gases when burned now make up the majority of household trash, and these gases are dangerous to humans and to the environment. Nitric oxide, hydrogen chloride, and dioxin are some of the dangerous pollutants that fill the air when leaving the towering smoke stacks of Okinawa's incinerators. The Health Ministry and the Environmental Agency are responsible for monitoring these gasses, but the levels set for safety are questionable. Japan's safety levels for dioxin, a main ingredient in agent orange used in the Vietnam War for defoliation, are actually set at levels that are 4,000 times greater than that of the United States and Europe. Although many scientists argue that the traces of dioxin found in our air are not dangerous, other tests have proven that long exposure to the poison can cause cancer, birth defects, and other serious health problems.

Another problem with incineration is that when many different items containing various chemical compounds are all burned together, new chemical compounds are created, which we have no idea what the effect will be on humans and on the environment. The remaining ash after incineration, containing many of these potentially hazardous chemicals, is discarded in our landfills, where they will eventually seep into the environment.

The rest of our solid waste, which can not be burned, is brought to landfills, but this is also another short-sighted and unsafe solution. There are only four landfills operated and maintained by the government on Okinawa, and these will be full in another decade. This has made the cost of trash disposal to the tax payer enormous. The law requires the municipality governments to be responsible for their own trash, forcing the majority of towns and cities to contract with other areas, which have landfills, or with one of the many privately owned ones. Naha alone must spend about 2,800,000 a year to deal with trash disposal.

Landfills are also a very big environmental hazard. Everything from car batteries to medical waste can be found there, and these items do not simply decompose and go away. It takes many years for the materials to begin to break down, all the while emitting many heavy metals and other toxic substances into the environment.

Even ignoring the dangers presented to humans and to the environment, we still must face the fact that there will be no more space for landfills in the near future. We also must realize that most of the incinerators are very old, and have been worn down by the 24 hour a day burning of many different materials. The high temperatures created by burning plastics over the years has shortened the life of many incinerators, which will eventually need to be repaired. The repairs will cost huge amounts of money, and the incinerators will need to be shut down for several years for them to be completed.

Although recycling efforts have recently greatly increased, Okinawa still only manages to recycle a very small amount of household discarded waste. Most of the recycling is done in the mainland, where we ship paper, cans, and steel to be recycled. Naha leads the way, recycling 5.8% of its trash in 1996, but this falls very short of the 25% recyclable rate achieved in Tokyo. Other areas of Okinawa, especially some of the smaller islands, recycle less than 1% of their trash.

We must recognize that we have reached a critical stage concerning our habits as a 'throw away' society'. We need to change those habits immediately, begin to recycle, and more importantly, stop making products that are dangerous to the environment. It is more economical to recycle in the long run, and we will be saving our planet at the same time.

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