Turning Trash Into Cash

In Japan, high-tech furnaces are vaporizing toxins and generating clean electricity

With its blue waters, white-sand beaches, and pristine coral reefs, Zamami Island off Okinawa looks like paradise. But until two years ago, the pleasures of Zamami were spoiled by the presence of a garbage incinerator that spewed highly toxic dioxin into the atmosphere. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, the facility produced hundreds of tons of ash laden with toxins, which the local government paid a waste-disposal company to bury on the Okinawa mainland.

But paradise may not be lost. This month, Zamami takes the wraps off a new "gasification" incinerator that will turn waste to energy with a minimum of pollution. The $9 million burner will process the 240 tons of garbage produced annually by the island's 600 residents and 100,000 visitors who arrive each year to go diving and whale-watching. It burns trash at such a high temperature -- 1,700C -- that almost all of it is vaporized. The high heat also destroys the dioxins contained in plastic, reducing emission levels of the cancer-causing pollutant to almost zero. What's left is a glass-like substance that can be used to make concrete. While the new facility was about 50% more expensive than a conventional incinerator, Zamami will ultimately save money because it won't have to pay to have ash and plastic rubbish hauled off the island. "This is the best solution," says Zamami mayor Mitsuo Nakamura. "We're not damaging the environment or leaving garbage for future generations to deal with."


Among environmentalists, incineration is a dirty word. But a handful of Japanese companies have developed energy-generating furnaces that produce far less pollution than conventional trash incinerators. These high-tech furnaces -- along with increased recycling efforts -- are fast becoming Japan's preferred method for dealing with the 70 million tons of municipal and industrial waste it produces each year. Tokyo, under pressure from local residents, started the trend in the 1990s with incinerators that generate electricity that is then sold to local utilities, or that produce heat used in facilities such as greenhouses and municipal pools. Last year, the city earned $36 million from such power sales.

Japan has earned the dubious appellation "dioxin nation" because it burns 80% of its garbage. But that label no longer sticks. Thanks to tough new dioxin-emissions standards, local governments have forced waste-plant operators to clean up or shut down. Some 2,400 of them -- 60% of the country's dioxin-belching industrial-waste furnaces -- went out of business last year, while an additional 1,000 municipal incinerators were either rebuilt or outfitted with new technology that limits emissions. The results have been dramatic: In 2002, Japan's incinerators emitted 635 grams of dioxin, down 90% from the 6.5 kilograms they produced five years earlier, according to the Environment Ministry.

The bad news is that illegal dumping of industrial waste is on the rise. Incinerators that meet the new standards are expensive to build and run, forcing operators to raise rates. That has many companies and haulers cutting corners. They are increasingly dumping waste illegally -- even in the forests at the base of much-beloved Mount Fuji. Last year, the government raised the fine for illegal dumping to a maximum of $1 million, from $10,000, but it has had little effect, local authorities say.

Despite the problems, some 250 Japanese towns and villages that once operated low-temperature furnaces have switched to cleaner waste-to-energy models. That has reduced the need for new landfills. And hydrogen and methane produced from garbage can be used to run engines that generate electricity. If demand for fuel-cell cars takes off, these plants could become a source of the hydrogen they need to operate. Akimichi Hatta, head of Ostrand Corp., an environmental technology think tank in Tokyo, is betting it will happen. He and other engineers will soon start testing a small gasification unit in the northern city of Iwaki that produces hydrogen at half the cost of current methods. "Garbage is ideal because it's readily available," he says.

There's another benefit to such micro-gasification units. Big cities such as Tokyo produce enough garbage to feed huge waste-to-energy incinerators that churn out electricity. But that's not possible in small communities. So engineers at the state-funded New Energy & Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) have developed a superefficient engine for use with gasifiers. "This will make it possible for towns to produce their own energy," says Mizuhiko Tanaka, a NEDO project coordinator.

As Japan has implemented new emissions rules in recent years, sales of incinerators have soared. But that boom is over for now: Orders for pollution-control and waste-treatment equipment dropped 16%, to $7.7 billion, in the year ending last March. So incinerator makers are looking to exports for growth. Japanese companies are gearing up to build waste-to-energy plants in China and Southeast Asia, where local governments are struggling to cope with overflowing landfills and huge volumes of waste. JFE Engineering Corp. expects its exports of such plants to reach nearly $50 million next year, up from $20 million in 2002. It's building an incinerator in Changzhou, China, as part of a mammoth waste-processing facility.

In some cases, those exports have led to conflict. Ebara Corp., a leading Japanese incinerator maker, won a $395 million contract to build a 1,500 ton-a-day burner to produce energy in Malaysia. Originally, the facility was to be built just outside Kuala Lumpur, but local citizens forced the government to move it to neighboring Selangor state. Even so, there's hope that Japan's trash-incinerating technology will help countries across Asia -- and indeed the world -- cope with their growing mountains of garbage.

By Irene M. Kunii in Tokyo

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