Waste management challenges and solutions in Japan’s Tsunami region – By Dr Tim Johnson
I recently visited Japan at the invitation of a waste management company. I have been there many times before, especially in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, but I hadn’t been there for several years and it was good to be back in that amazing and fascinating country. I remember especially travelling through Kobe around five years after the devastating earthquake struck the city in January 1995 and being amazed at how few outward signs of the disaster remained after a comparatively short passage of years. It was a most visible tribute to the phenomenal resilience and hard work of the Japanese people in the face of adversity.
Since then (and unusually for a British citizen) I have experienced three significant earthquakes at first hand: a moderate one in Tokyo in around 1993 and two much larger ones on a single night in San Diego in June 1992, including the largest quake in the area since the 1908 San Francisco tragedy. On both occasions I was fortunate to be located in areas that were almost unscathed by these events but it has given me a particularly personal view on something which, when it happens to you is at best deeply unsettling and at worst plain frightening. Consequently, I felt deeply honoured and humbled when I was invited to the North East of the Japanese mainland, little more than a year after the area was hit by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded and the terrible Tsunami which followed.
Just like my experience in Kobe over a decade ago, when I first arrived there seemed to be few indications of the power and extent of the disaster but then, as one travelled closer to the coastal areas that had been hit hardest, the grim reality started to emerge. Near to the port area of Ishonomaki, the Tsunami wave came in with a height of 6.9 meters and swept whole communities of shops and houses away. The water came in to smash everything in its path before sucking the debris back out to sea as it retreated, only to repeat the process several more times with decreasing force until the waters lay still and 2 meters deep amongst the blazing oil tanks that had exploded and the ensuing fires that burned unchecked for three days. Having seen this area a year after that terrible day it seems incredible the national loss of life was not even higher than 16,000 confirmed dead and 3,000 missing – such things leave one with nothing to say.
One very obvious effect of this terrifying display of nature’s power was to leave layers of debris equivalent to a full 20 years of normal waste production to be removed and treated. Less obvious is the fact that the coastal strip has dropped more than a meter relative to sea level and as much as two meters in the worst affected zones, leaving large areas at risk of flooding. The characteristic Japanese response to all these daunting problems has been the same as after Kobe, i.e. to set about the clean up and reconstruction work with dedication and dignity. The debris has been cleared, buildings have been repaired, factories have been restarted, the dead have been honoured and the living are being looked after until new houses have been built.
In terms of waste management, which is after all why I was invited to visit the area, one has to say the extent of the clean up work in the area I visited is truly impressive, with five new incinerators having been built near this one port alone in order to process the debris, which itself is being sorted and classified to ensure whatever can be re-used is not wasted. It is expected that this literal mountain of waste will be gone in a staggeringly quick three years, at which point the incinerators will be taken down and more outwards reminders of the disaster will be gone. Meanwhile the low-lying coastal areas are slowly being refilled with cleaned debris and fresh material from the mountains, although even for the Japanese this is a task that will surely take many, many more years to complete.
And yet, even with all this as an emotional, mental and physical backdrop (and it was never far from anyone’s thoughts or conversation), my hosts were already thinking ahead to new waste treatment technology for the years after the clean up is over. All credit to them and it is a trip I shall never forget.
Will we see a string of orders for plasma equipment from this area? I don’t know but, given what communities in this area have been through, few things would give me greater pleasure than to see Tetronics’ plasma technology playing even a small part in helping the Japanese waste treatment industry in the years to come.