Japan Stanches Stench of Mass Trash Incinerators

The Toshima Incineration Plant in Tokyo burns 300 tons of garbage a day while producing electricity, hot water and even road materials. The incinerator runs in a dense urban area, reportedly without producing stench. Video by Blaine Harden/The Washington Post
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

TOKYO -- It doesn't smell like a dump.

If it did, there are a quarter-million neighbors to complain about Tokyo's Toshima Incineration Plant, which devours 300 tons of garbage a day, turning it into electricity, hot water and a kind of recyclable sand.

Japan burns more garbage in the heart of its big cities than any developed country. The Toshima plant is one of 21 factory-size incinerators that operate around the clock amid Tokyo's 12 million densely packed residents.

Remarkably, this does not create a big stink, literally or politically.

"There is no smoke or odor coming from the incinerators," said Hideki Kidohshi, a garbage analyst at the Japan Research Institute.

While the United States buries most garbage in landfills, Japan burns about three-quarters of its trash in the world's largest armada of incinerators. All this burning raised dioxin levels in Japan to dangerously high levels in the 1990s, but technological advances have since corrected the problem. "All in all, the dioxin issue has been conquered," Kidohshi said.

Besides not being smelly, smoky or deadly, Japan's urban incinerators are often not ugly. Indeed, many are architecturally significant and some are social hotspots.

The renowned architect Yoshio Taniguchi, designer of the expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York, also designed Hiroshima's incineration plant, an eye-catching tourist attraction that the architect has called "my museum of garbage."

Here in Tokyo, about 186,000 people a year frequent the Toshima Incineration Plant. These visitors, most of whom live in the neighborhood, come to swim and exercise in the plant's handsome and affordable fitness center.

The center was added to the incinerator complex when it was built in the late 1990s to appease neighbors appalled by the prospect of millions of tons of garbage being burned in their back yard.

Those neighbors now swim in a pool heated by burning garbage. They work out in rooms lighted by electricity generated from a steam-driven turbine linked to the furnace that burns the garbage. Surplus electricity, enough for 20,000 homes, is sold into the grid. The complex also has a health clinic for the elderly.

Ash from the incinerator is melted into a sandy slag used in asphalt, bricks and concrete.

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