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Dioxin or recycling, choices for the 21st century

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-03-02

The problem of what to do with the island's growing amount of trash looms as the twenty first century approaches. Although there have been major changes in Japan's laws concerning recycling, it has proven difficult to meet the goals set forth by legislatures. Combined with the problem of dangerous levels of dioxin, Okinawa and the rest or Japan must face some hard choices in the near future.

Japan's history on recycling is very short. The very first law which prompted new recycling efforts was passed in 1991. It was the first time in twenty years that new methods for trash collection were put into action. Even more important was the integration of recycling. Prior to 1991, there were no laws which officially recognized recycling as a necessary function of reducing waste.

In 1996 another leap forward took place with a much stricter recycling law. The new legislation called for proper separation of trash by all Japanese citizens, proper disposal and recycling by local municipalities, and for large corporations to make efforts to produce recyclable products. The new law was considered a win for environmentalists, and the country began a huge campaign to inform the general public about recycling.

Some towns and cities have made major progress in the last three years since Japan's recycling law was passed, but other districts have failed to accomplish many of the standards set by the government within the law. The large gap between cities has made it difficult for making substantial progress in fighting the problem of trash disposal as a nation. In Okinawa the results have been much the same. The towns of Haebaru and Sashiki receive high scores on their report card, recycling about 20% of household trash. But despite these efforts, very low numbers in other communities, especially outer islands, brings Okinawa's overall recycling rate down to a very low 5%.

The need to recycle has been greatly emphasized recently by the attention being given to high dioxin levels caused by Japan's trash incinerators. Because of the lack of space for new landfills, Japan has moved in the direction of building more incinerators, which has compounded the dioxin problem.

Okinawa's leading specialist in recycling, Hiroshi Kogachi, explained that law makers and politicians are showing concern, but viable solutions are lacking. One new strategy that the central government has started to implement requires incinerators to actually operate twenty four hours, everyday. Tests have shown that dioxin is released during the increase in temperature when incinerators are first beginning to burn and during the cooling down stage after they have been shut down. "Most dioxin is broken up when the temperature exceeds 800 c," said Kogachi. The new plan therefor calls for keeping the incinerators constantly working. But Kogachi and other environmentalists feel the government's plan is a step in the wrong direction.

"In order to keep incinerators burning constantly, there needs to be enough trash," pointed out Kogachi. He is afraid that instead of increasing recycling, the government is simply encouraging more household trash for burning.

Although the central government is still looking at incineration as an alternative to landfills, local governments are starting to think different. The cost of maintenance for incinerators, along with the high cost of trash collection, has kept recycling programs started by many of Japan's city's alive. With no room for landfills and growing pressure from citizens to bring down dioxin levels, towns and cities may have no other choice but to step up recycling.

"We must have action to convince the general public to buy more products that are recyclable, and force more companies to make products that are more environmental friendly from the start," said Kogachi.

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