by Michael Wong
May, 2004--We all know what happens to that pizza box after we're finished. Easy, we throw it away, don't we? Yep, it goes straight into the trash, along with all the other inconvenient objects in our lives. The trash truck comes by, and then poof, it miraculously disappears from the face of the earth. Right?
Wrong. We may want to believe this to be the case, but we all know that it does go somewhere. A place we call the dump, the landfill, the waste disposal site, etc. But to most of us, these places are just names of locations that may as well be just a floor or two above Hades. Heard of it, never been there, but know it to be one hell of a stinky place to go!
So here I am, halfway around the world in Japan and with garbage dumps the furthest thing from my mind. But as I crossed the raised Seaside kousoku Highway No. 5 from Osaka to Kobe, something I had to do for work many times, I would often notice the most curious pair of structures off on Maishima Island in the Osaka harbor.
Surely it must be a hotel or some kind of amusement center (perhaps a gaudy pachinko parlor?). I mean, what else would look like that?
Well, imagine my surprise when I found out that it was in fact a garbage facility--the Osaka City Environmental Management Bureau's Maishima Incineration and Water Treatment Plants to be exact. Being somewhat of an environmentalist and a skeptic, my curiosity naturally compelled me to find out what exactly was hiding inside these candy-coated buildings. I mean, on one hand it seemed like they were just dipping a zucchini in chocolate and then sprinkling it with colorful sugar dots trying to convince the public how sweet it was. On the other hand, I know that although books should not be judged by their covers, the cover sure can be a good indicator about what's inside. Either way, I was determined to find out what secrets these buildings had to offer.
With the help of my Japanese neighbor Matsuo-san, we found out that guided tours were available by appointment, but only at the incineration plant. As it was the more colorful of the two structures, I was more than happy with that, and I felt a strange excitement about being able to visit a garbage facility that looked like a Vegas hotel. How can one make gomi processing look clean, fun, and happy when by its very nature is an ugly, dirty, and smelly business? A business that often results in the pollution of the surrounding environment. I knew I was in for an eye-opening afternoon.
As we approached the huge structure, a beautiful tower, which I could only assume was a smoke stack, loomed up into the sky. With its golden ball on top and viewing centers along the sides, it truly looked more like something that belonged in an amusement park and not a garbage facility. But there it was, towering over us in all its grandeur as we drove up into the guest parking lot.
As I got out of the car, the first and most obvious sign that this was no ordinary garbage facility was the lack of, well…garbage. I looked high and low but could see no litter. No wrappers under the bushes, no cigarette butts in the parking lot, no black grime staining the white walls, nothing but manicured greenery. In fact, there was too much greenery. It was midori everywhere. Of course, I expected a lawn and a few trees to surround the facility--but to have plants way up high on the roof as well as sprouting out of the decorative walls??? Needless to say, I was eager to see more.
We were greeted outside by our guide, a kindly old man who introduced himself as Kuwata-san, a senior manager at the plant. As he led us into the building, I was pleased to find the same decorative theme that covered the exterior of the plant. From floor to wall to ceiling, the colors were bright and clean and had many curved lines separating them. We stopped at a hallway off the entrance lounge that had yellow brick flooring (imported from Oz?) and lined with beautiful artwork that reminded me of the exterior theme of the building. Each piece was an original and signed by a name I did not recognize (nor could even begin to pronounce--must be European).
At the end of the hallway we reached a small seminar room that was obviously made for visitors of all sorts, but mainly for Japanese field trip students (their main guests). There he told us the answer to the one question that had ultimately drawn me to that very moment: the building's unique and colorful design was the concept of the famous Viennese artist, Meister Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Now, although I had no idea who this artist was, I did recognize the name to be the same as on the artwork in the hallway. He worked on both canvas and building plots, and I was quite impressed with what he did--especially considering that I was standing inside one of his grandest pieces!
Kuwata-san then went on to say that this artist's intent was to bring architecture and ecology into harmony with nature, hence the abundance of plants and curved lines throughout the building's design. Unfortunately, Hundertwasser passed away in February of 2000, a year before this plant opened. But although he is much better known for his "vegetative" style of canvas artwork, his architectural designs are also renowned. It is such a shame that he could not live to see the completion of this truly remarkable piece of art.
Now that the important question of who had been answered, there still remained the nagging question of why. Not why build an incineration plant to begin with but why have it decorated with a look that could even embarrass a Japanese "love hotel"? Well, the answer from Kuwata-san was simple: 2008 Olympic site nominee. Beijing eventually became the winner, but if Osaka had won, Maishima Island with its large sports facilities would have been the center of world attention. I nodded to Kuwata-san with new enlightenment, naruhodo, it all made sense now.
Also in the seminar room I learned a bunch of statistics and specifications about the plant that I dare not repeat, except for these few items that I found interesting:
- There are 110 workers who work two days shifts then receive one day off. The first shift is 8 hours, the second is 16.
- The plant runs all year round except New Year's day and incinerates (at 950 degrees C) 900 tons daily.
- The trash trucks that enter the building have already sorted their trash into either burnable or non-burnable. Burnable go down one of several shafts to one pit and non-burnables go down a different set of shafts to a different pit. Burnables are incinerated, and non-burnables are compressed and chopped up into 20cm fragments. (Bottles, cans, and other recyclable items go to a different facility.)
As for the burnables: the trucks dump their loads of trash into chutes that lead to one of three gigantic concrete waste pits (15,000m3). An equally gigantic claw then grabs about six truck's worth of trash and drops it into the incinerator. The resulting ash goes through a process that converts it into a non-toxic sand-like material then used for paving city roads. The incinerator heat is used to create enough electricity to run the entire plant's operation, with the leftover sold back to the city (32,000kw). Finally, the smoke seems to be treated pretty thoroughly, using such things as a bagfilter, heated dechlorination system, wet gas scrubber, gas reheater, and a selective catalyst reactor before they let it out the smoke stack. As I said, a lot of "meaningless" facts to the uneducated waster, but since I was told that Japan has some of the strictest pollution regulations in the world, I was happy to learn that this plant exceeded all of them.
Next came the tour of the fully automated facility. Time to get my hands dirty? Not a chance. From the truck dumping lot to the waste pit control room to the incinerator area and electricity generator room we went, and I swear I have seen hospitals dirtier than this place. As the trucks dump their load, not a stray scrap of paper falls onto the dock pavement, and in each of the other rooms and hallways, it was spotless. And it's not just because its new (only 3 years old). According to Kuwata-san, it is kept clean by company culture and worker pride.
It seems to be policy to thwart the stereotype of the typical garbage collection site. Just because this is where all the city's garbage comes, does not mean that it has to be a dirty place to work or dirty its surrounding environment. Hence, no smelly trash or trashy smell surrounds the facility. That's right, no smell, sugoi ne!
This was something that took me by surprise half way through the tour: where's the stink?!? I asked, and was told that this was a key design component. All garbage smell is kept inside the waste pits and dumping docks, with virtually no smell leaking to the outside. All other areas inside the building are more or less air tight, a fact I found just amazing. But as I look back at the picture of the spotless control room I now notice that the workers there were all wearing slippers (!) so that the carpeted floors would stay free from dirt and grime that would be tracked in by their shoes. Sure enough, although I do not have a picture, I do remember seeing a bunch of shoes at the control room's genkan entrance. Yes, indeed, perhaps the world's cleanest garbage facility both inside and out, and only in Japan!
The rest of the tour consisted of rooms and hallways with teaching gadgetry that reminded me of things I have seen at science museums, including hands-on booths, quiz machines, and a "Hey kids, lets not be wasteful" film center. Kuwata-san finally took us out a side door to one of the roof top gardens, where I got a good look at the equally beautiful Water Treatment Plant across the way (also designed by Hundertwasser a few years earlier. At last we came to the end of our amazing tour. We gave our thanks, said arigato as we did our ojigi bows, and then drove out of one of Japan's most incredible but little-known waste disposal centers.
I have been in Japan for over 8 years and have seen some pretty amazing things. From indoor ski slopes and surfing beaches to robotic factories and micro appliances, so I thought I had seen it all and could not be amazed much further. But this waste disposal facility sure opened my eyes to a part of Japan which I thought I would never see in one of its major cities: a Japan where at least some in government can put a higher priority on aesthetics and environment than profit and efficiency. I have since done some research on my own and found that these two plants fall under a law that was passed in 1993: Basic Law for the Promotion of a Recycling-Oriented Society of 2000. The law name speaks for itself but I thought I would share its precepts:
1. Decrease the amount of waste as far as possible (Reduce)
2. Use over and over as far as possible (Reuse)
3. When items cannot be reused, use them as raw material (Recycle)
4. Even when waste materials are incinerated, use the heat generated by incineration for power generation (thermal recycling)
5. In case none of the above is possible, dispose of waste material in an appropriate manner
I applaud Japan and wish them the best of success in their green endeavors. I can only hope that other countries will adopt similar measures that promote the ideas championed by the late Meister Friedensreich Hundertwasser: the harmony between technology, ecology, nature, and art.
For more on Meister Friedensreich Hundertwasser:
For more on the Osaka City Maishima Incineration Plant:
Text and photos by Michael Wong