Keeping Up with Japan

Japan's "50 percent" recycling rate was probably the most commonly recited garbage statistic in the late '80s and early '90s. In those days, every time I attended a state or Congressional hearing, even a public meeting, at least one very sincere elected official would recite Japan's recycling rate and then challenge Americans to do a better job. If the Japanese could recycle their way out of the garbage crisis, we could too!

Before they received kudos for recycling, the Japanese were lauded for their success at using waste-to-energy incinerators, lessening their reliance on landfills and creating a new energy source. I still can remember the video of a Japanese incinerator that showed school children playing in a swimming pool heated by a neighboring trash burner (you could see its stack through the windows of the swimming pool building).

Unfortunately, neither incineration nor recycling solved Japan's solid waste problems. Even if Japan had a 50 percent recycling rate (it didn't), another 50 percent of trash was sent to disposal, and its highly successful waste-to-energy facilities struggle to find ash disposal sites. Today, Japan is bedeviled by the negative environmental impact of small trash incinerators operating without the same pollution controls as the big burners.

In fact, according to a recent Associated Press story, Japan has "an ever-increasing volume of trash and rapidly vanishing space available to dispose of it." Japanese sanitation officials warn that Japan could "eventually drown in its own garbage." Higher disposal costs have led to an increase in illegal dumping. Garbage even is being exported to other countries for disposal.

The irony is that many American cities and counties relied on recycling and waste-to-energy facilities to solve their disposal problems, only to discover that they still needed landfills. Maybe we are no different than the Japanese after all.

I am not gloating over the problems facing the Japanese. I admire their resolute efforts to resolve their garbage problems. But I can't help but wonder why so many "experts" in this country keep saying that other countries handle their garbage better than we do.

At one time or another, Japan, European producer-responsibility programs and the latest technological "breakthrough" from another country (Does anyone remember the super compactor that would bale garbage into itty-bitty cubes that would fit into a shoebox?) were all proclaimed to hold the answer to America's garbage problems. Yet, we don't stop and ask ourselves if these programs are working as well as they claimed or if their success is a result of unique factors, such as higher population densities or the absence of anti-trust laws.

We should not automatically reject ideas just because they weren't invented here. We have much to learn from successes and failures elsewhere. But as the latest news from Japan shows, we can stop kicking ourselves over what other countries do with their trash, and we can keep working on ways to improve what we do with ours.