Recycling and waste to energy in Tokyo

I have spent the last week in extraordinary Japan. The first part of the trip was to look at Waste to Energy plants as part of a joint local/state government delegation.

Tokyo metro area is amazing – it feels like it goes forever (with over 9 million people in the central area alone where we looked at four of their 21 Waste to Energy plants) extending to a hard to fathom 35 million people if you include the greater metro area!

In the waste and recycling arena Tokyo puts Perth to shame. The average person in Tokyo creates 0.3 tonne of waste per year vs an average Perth resident being over eight times that at 2.5tonne per year.

Of this huge amount of waste (4.5 million tonne) only 33% is recycled (Fremantle does a lot better than that thanks to the SMRC though). 3 million tonne of it goes into landfill in WA. In contrast central Tokyo despite its vast population only sends 0.36 million tonnes to landfill down from 2.4 Million tonnes in late 80’s.

This is due to some impressive household separation and recycling and also because of the wide spread use of Waste to Energy plants which are basically sophisticated incinerators that use the heat from burning the waste at a high temperature (800 degrees centigrade) to drive a power plant that exports electricity to the power grid.

These plants are pretty common around the world but not used in Australia partly because landfill has been too cheap and easy (which has clearly made us lazy on the recycling front too) and partly because of community concerns about the health impacts of the plants. Hence the purpose of the tour was to ask first hand these questions and to try and work out if these would be a good option for Perth. I’ll come back to the rather complex issue of whether it is right for Perth question in another post shortly but the Tokyo experience was very useful as it showed me:

  • Perth’s status quo of just burying two thirds of our refuse in landfill is leaving a poor environmental legacy and this needs to and can change.
  • There is a strong case for a three bin system (rubbish, recycling and green waste) so we can radically reduce what goes to landfill.
  • Waste to Energy could be a key part of a zero waste to landfill strategy but only if the evidence shows there are not harmful emissions and that it only took waste that would otherwise be put in landfill – not what should be going to recycling as per the waste hierarchy.

I’ll look at these in more detail as this important debate inevitably unfolds over coming weeks and months. I also plan to hold a public forum on the issue as I know it will be a controversial one and we need to make sure all views are heard and the evidence is properly examined. In the meantime here are some photos on the recycling and waste to energy plants I visited in Japan.

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About Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt's blog
City of Fremantle Mayor

27 Responses to Recycling and waste to energy in Tokyo

  1. Susan says:

    look very techno. i can bring of a creative recycling plant in ashburton and christchurch. Nz. if you are interested. i could write to explain how it worked..truly well used by locals and loved by all. inspirational!

  2. Nonie Jekabsons says:

    “Waste To Energy” plants require “waste” to burn in order to remain financially viable. We should really be minimising waste (over consumption, excess packaging, planned obsolescence etc) from the outset, not locking into an industrial model that demands ‘waste’ as a fuel. WA is blessed with abundant solar energy, and our homegrown skill set combined with innovative leadership demonstrates potential to become a world leader in clean energy technology. I attended a WALGA WTE forum, where an industry ‘expert’ from Germany condescendingly described Australia as being behind the times in WTE uptake. Let’s face it, we don’t need to burn rubbish to produce energy in WA. Instead we should focus on waste minimisation, real recycling including the informal and cultural sector, safely converting organic waste into bulk soil enhancing products and reaping the environmental rewards.

    • I don’t disagree but frustratingly WA is along way this ideal outcome. Are there any countries which don’t rely on landfill or waste to energy in part?

      • Jane Bremmer says:

        yes, San Francisco, many towns in Italy, Nova Scotia and with Denmark moving to decommission their waste to energy incinerators in pursuit of real renewable energy.

  3. Louise Edmonds says:

    Hi Brad
    Thanks for updating us all on your trip.

    I think it is great to explore new technologies to deal with our waste.

    I’d like to put these considerations forward. Due to the considerable capital investment required by these plants they are very hungry garbage monsters. To get the volume of material required to feed them will result in very long “garbage miles”. Lots of trucks moving long distances on metro roads.
    The economic models for these plants are built around stationary energy sector economics which are already being seriously undermined by the renewable sector.

    The big issue we face is contamination and sorting of feed stock into our existing plants. If we can get this sorted at a local level have localised facilities for waste the literal capacity for innovation in the four Rs is huge. Look at Garbologie as an example fledgling yes but the potential is huge.

    Organic waste is way too valuable to go to these plants. If you ever like to chat about this I’d be happy to meet.


  4. Jane Bremmer says:

    Dear Brad,

    There have been a number of WA parliamentary delegations that have traveled overseas to look at incinerators and other waste management practices over the last decade. The Liberal’s Phil Edman took the Premier just last year to Japan (the incinerator capital of the world) for the same. There is clearly a Liberal party campaign in WA to set up this dirty energy industry with lots of money going into ‘lining up the ducks’ – even changing our state waste hierarchy to suit! . The Waste Authority certainly have “created the right environment” through neglecting our recycling and composting sector to pave the way for waste to energy incinerators. But scratch the surface of the incinerator industry and you will find the fossil fuel and mining industry.

    How stupid of clean green WA to even consider burning our waste resources, putting more CO2 into the atmosphere and wasting all that embedded energy, at a time when Europe is walking away from these dead end technologies in pursuit of real renewable energy and to support their recycling and composting industry. This is not a smart waste management option for WA….its just a con!

    I look forward to a robust and inclusive debate for the Fremantle community. There are some serious ethical questions they will need to consider. How will Freo folks feel about sending their waste to another host community for disposal (likely Kwinana and/or Rockingham) who will carry the burden of pollution and health impacts? Are they not already burdened enough with industrial pollution?

    Or perhaps the City of Fremantle will host a waste to energy incinerator?

    I do look forward to hearing your views Brad on these profoundly important waste management decisions that are being made right now in WA.

    • Jane
      It would be safe to say Freo won’t be hosting one but a key question is whether we should be part of sending of rubbish to one located in Kwinana. Before we make any decision on this though a commit to having a full and open community debate on the merits and concerns of this idea. cheers

      • Jane Bremmer says:

        Brad I assume you meant “I would commit to having a full debate in Fremantle”?

        The Kwinana incinerator is no where near being approved let alone built with NO project documents submitted to the EPA yet so are you sure there is a need for a debate about whether Freo sends it waste there?

        No incinerators have been built in WA yet so the question isn’t really where will Freo send its waste but should we have incinerators at all?

        I understand that the incinerator industries PR machine is in full swing in WA but we haven’t even had the debate yet about what we want to do with our waste….its been a very clever trick keeping that debate out of the public arena. Where we have had the opportunity to comment in previous years the public has been ignored – a warning there for freo folks!

        Still you have to stay positive and hope that a green sustainability minded local government will do the right thing for their constituents, the environment and future generations… including for those in the imposed host communities of Kwinana, Cockburn and Rockingham.

        Does Freo really need more pollution? Are you not sick enough already with the pollution from the Kwinana Industrial Strip, Alcoa and Cockburn cement without adding another major dirty energy polluter to the mix when there is an alternative solution.

        These are profoundly important environmental health and justice decisions for all WA citizens especially those with children.

        We are having a public forum on the Hazelmere Pyrolysis incinerator next week Wed 21st May and the EMRC forum is tonight for anyone who wants to find out more about this technology – which your SMRC is looking to host. EMRC event at Midland Town Hall 6pm and our event at the Mechanics Institute Wed 21st May 6pm also.

  5. dianaryan says:

    Brad, Jane Bremmer has impressed with her knowledge and concerns about disposal issues. Is there a reason why you aren’t responding to her on this blog?

  6. Colin Beattie says:

    Sorry to enter this fascinating discussion so late…

    I’m not sure what technologies you viewed in Japan but my view is that there is room for a little bit of WtE in our energy mix in WA. But you need to choose the right technology. Plasma Arc Gassifiers are a very different animal to incerators and have the ability to deal with waste streams which cannot be dealt with through the 4 R’s.
    I’m talking about industrial, chemical and medical waste. If we are concerned aboutthe amount of landfill we have in WA as a legacy we could use a Plasma arc gassifier to help clean up our act from the past as well.
    I have to dash but will continue this post later…

    • Nonie Jekabsons says:

      Hi Colin,
      by which I assume you mean “residual” waste – that which can’t be ‘dealt with’ by the four “R”s, the critical “R” being “redesign” and that’s where we need to realign FORWARD thinking. The issue here is that we are generating too much waste in the first place and should not be locking our civilisation into technologies which rely on it in order to be viable or profitable. A little bit of WtE is not something I want to be living downwind of, especially given the industry ‘experts’ can’t even predict the potential harmful effects of nano particles being released into the atmosphere. Gasification is a very round about way of arriving at something which is a substitute for fossil fuels – a very round about way.

      • Hi Nonie
        I totally agree that we generate too much waste and I would advocate for more education in how we can apply the 4 R’s but that doesn’t mean that we can’t use WtE in the form of gassification at the same time. I probably wouldn’t want to see WtE as a long term option but it would help us deal with the problem we currently face in terms of processing our current levels of waste as well as cleaning up some existing contaminated sites.
        It is not unreasonable to consider a blend of methods that can be used to manage the waste we produce and WtE has a part to play in that mix.
        The City of Sydney have just released their advanced waste treatment plan which you can look at on this link It is an interesting, well-researched document.

      • Nonie Jekabsons says:

        Hi Colin, the proposed WWTE plant in Hazelmere will take 11 years to pay for itself it receives consistent feedstock, which we are TOLD will be clean timber waste – a by product of the construction industry. Virtually all timber used in construction is chemically treated in some way, and would actually suit being recycled into engineered timber products – burning it in a pyrolisis gasification plant destroys that potential, forever, meanwhile generating pollution. What happens if the plant can’t source enough preferred feedstock to remain (or even become) financially viable? Does it resort to unsuitable material, MSW? or start burning native forests? I don’t see how 11 years is a ‘short term solution’ – all it does is divert material which would better be recycled or upcycled from the waste stream – does not provide an incentive to reduce consumption and therefore waste, and simply delays the inevitable – either we take control of the situation or continue to foul our own nest. We really don’t need WTE in the mix, we are more intelligent than that.

    • Jane Bremmer says:

      The problem with “a little bit of W2E incineration in the mix” …is that it assumes that one is exclusive from the other…but they are not and when incinerators are competing for the same resources as the recycling and composting sectors someone loses. We don’t want the composting and recycling sectors to lose as they provide the best ecologically sustainable outcome. Plasma Arc technology does not have a very good performance track record and there have been some spectacular failures with this technology. We shouldn’t be trying to hide our waste in big machines or down vacuum shoots!!! We won’t ever address the inherent design problems that create waste in the first place if we don’t look at our waste and take responsibility for it. Zero waste solutions work and this is where our sustainable future lies…don’t we need more social investments and less geo engineering?

    • Jane Bremmer says:

      It might help folks on this list to understand the strong opposition to W2E in WA by having a read of this…especially before promoting this dirty energy industry in WA.

      • In my view ‘upcycling’ waste into a useful resource is worth considering but as I said in my original comment, the 4R’s have to come first.

        For every reference you have that is anti-WTE I can find one that supports it.

        Older technologies have their issues but the newer ones I’ve seen look good. My area of expertise is energy and my passion is dealing with climate change. The newer, cleaner WTE technologies running in the UK and Germany (and Japan, Brad?) can offer electricity production which can offset that produced by fossil fuels at a fraction of the carbon cost.
        I’m not advocating WTE as a long term solution necessarily but we need to work harder and faster to reduce our carbon emissions in the face of climate change, and I think WTE has a small but important part to play in providing low-carbon electricity.

        Jane, Nonie – I don’t expect that we’ll come to an agreement but it’s good to have the conversation.

      • Jane Bremmer says:

        I think the key difference Colin is that the material I am providing is independent. That is – that it is not generated by the vested interests of the industry themselves but by independent scientists and researchers not on the W2E payroll.

        Also the material I have been providing shows that there is a political, scientific and civil society shift away from these technologies (which by the way are NOT new – that is industry PR)

        But if you are serious about reducing climate change impacts from fossil fuels then you wouldn’t choose waste to energy because it produces more CO2 than coal. That is a fact accepted by regulators and industry alike. It is only because of the dodgy carbon accounting that ignores the embedded energy in the waste that is driving their latest push to steal renewable energy subsidies and credits from real renewable energy technologies like solar wind and wave.

        Frankly I can’t believe this is happening in Australia – a supposed smart green country! When I read how Greenpeace, FoE, Earthjustice, Sierra Club and many more major green and environmental organisations are working together to stop this industry I despair at what is happening in Australia.

        The Abbott government is opening up our forests for Biomass incineration for any old energy generator who wants it, while Colin Barnett is happy for us to have more than 7 incinerators burning our waste in Perth….chugging out dioxin and toxic nanoparticles without a care in the world for what that means for our air quality and children’s long term health! Shame!!!

        For what its worth…my area of expertise is in environmental justice. I don’t work for any of the sectors trying to make a buck out of trashing our climate and health.

        Fremantle can choose to send their waste to an incinerator in another town…burdening another community with pollution and ill health….nice!

        However,you will,face stiff opposition for that injustice!

      • Nonie Jekabsons says:

        Jane, well said, but you are missing the point that Colin claims that he has an answer for every “Anti WTE reference” – he claims that he can find one to support WTE. Hmm. Well, can Colin answer the burning question of NANO PARTICLES? At the WALGA WTE forum, a prominent panel of experts in the field, including an international expert from Germany, could not satisfactorily answer a query from a EMRC delegate who queried the health impacts of nano particles. Indeed the response was that “there are already nano particles everywhere, so why should we be worried about more?”. Quite irresponsible imho. If Colin has a response to this legitimate concern, I really would like to hear it. I am sure many others would too. Colin ~ Is there “support” for the release of more nano particles into the atmosphere, given that their long term health and environmental impacts cannot be predicted, and this has been admitted by the proponents of WTE? Is this why you would not advocate the use of this technology in the “long term”? How long is “long term”?

  7. From the previous comments it’s obvious that WTE is a complicated issue.

    “Turning unsorted and usable trash into a valuable fuel commodity means communities are less likely to choose to reduce, reuse and recycle it. Burning waste can seem easier and less expensive than sorting, diverting and recycling it. But once it’s burned, it can never be used for anything else — it’s gone! … Even those who promote the technology would probably agree that the best ways to deal with waste are to reduce, reuse and recycle it.” (David Suzuki, 2013) [A]

    Incinerators are big business and expensive to set up so that once you sign up for one, you are locked into long-term contracts which restrict the development of zero waste programs and renewable energy systems. [B] I was impressed with Japan’s household waste separation systems when I lived there for 2 years but I was also shocked at the amount of wasteful over-packaging of their products.

    Fremantle’s waste is currently taken to the South Metropolitan Regional Council’s (SMRC) Regional Resource & Recycling Centre (RRRC) which is designed to recover 85% of household waste, [C] however most of the recycled materials that are recovered are then exported to other countries to be used in production.

    Rather than investing in incinerators, Fremantle may benefit more from:
    1/ Introducing a 3rd ‘organics’ bin (in addition to the current 2 general and recycle bin system)
    2/ Reducing the amount of waste we produce through education and regulation; and
    3/ Investing in local anaerobic digestion facilities

    “Local anaerobic digestion facilities can help to reduce the amount of waste that requires transportation to centralized sites. This reduced burden on transportation reduces carbon emissions from the collection vehicles. If localized anaerobic digestion facilities are embedded within an electrical distribution network, they can help reduce the electrical losses associated with transporting electricity over a national grid.” [D]


    [B] Bell, Lee (2014) in a recent lecture at CUSP, Western Australia



  8. Muhammad Adil Setiyanto Suhodo says:

    Hello. What a great story man.
    I’m studying Environmental Engineering here in my country. So, I’d like to learn more about the technology of recycling and WTE.

    May I know what program did you do?
    What are the name of plants that you visited?
    Thank you

  9. Identity not required says:

    hey everyone,
    i was just wondering if there are any solutions to fixing the waste management in Tokyo.
    it is a very big issue and i need answers for one of my assessments

    • Nonie Jekabsons says:

      hey ID not req person, I hope you find what you are looking for. The answer my friend is, hopefully not blowing in the wind. The answer to waste management is via Zero Waste, may I suggest you google “The Zero Waste Solution”, and check out the movie “Trashed”. The answer, my friend is people.

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