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Improperly sorted electronics containing plastic possible cause of huge trash fires: gov't

Black smoke is seen rising from a pile of electrical waste and other trash stored at a site in Joso, Ibaraki Prefecture, in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter on May 15, 2019.

TOKYO -- Repeated cases of large scale fires at storage sites for disposed items such as electronic goods containing plastic are exposing failures in trash handling, which is caused by Japan's inability to keep up with increasing volumes of inexportable rubbish.

Following China's general ban on plastic waste imported as recyclable resources at the end of 2017, the amount of plastic debris stored by trash disposal companies in Japan has been increasing, heightening concerns of more fires. On May 20 this year, The Ministry of the Environment sent warnings to apprise prefectural governments and other administrations of the possibility lithium ion batteries found in electrics are catalysts for the incidents.

Early in the morning on May 15, an enormous fire broke out at a materials storage location in Joso, Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo. To quell the blaze, some 240 vehicles including fire engines and about 1,360 firefighters were dispatched, finally extinguishing it on May 27.

The scene of the conflagration is a site measuring around 5,000 square meters. It is said that items including washing machines, refrigerators and other disposed electrical products, apparently collected from homes and companies, were kept in piles about 10 meters high. Black smoke broke out due to the flames and dozens of children at a nearby elementary school temporary complained of pain in their eyes and throats.

According to the environment ministry, excluding the blaze in Joso, there have been other instances of large scale fires of plastic debris and other items at waste disposal sites in Tokyo and other surrounding areas including Tochigi and Saitama prefectures since April 2019.

Almost 80% of plastic rubbish is industrial waste produced by companies, but since China's ban on imports, trash disposal has been lagging behind mainly in the Greater Tokyo Area. Before the ban, disposed electronics were exported to China after materials including metals were separated from them. Now cases of intermediary waste sorting facilities with mountains of trash sitting on their land have become conspicuous. The waste manager at the Joso blaze explained, "We couldn't export them, so unwanted electronics kept piling up."

While the causes of some recent fires cannot be identified, the environment ministry believes unseparated lithium batteries left inside disposed electronic items have been responsible in some instances. If flames caused by the batteries reach the vast accumulations of highly flammable petroleum-based plastic debris stored on these sites, they can start a huge blaze.

With a need for early warnings on the issue, the environment ministry sent out information -- including guidance for trash disposal services to thoroughly separate garbage and avoid fires, as well as to seek partnership with the fire department -- to prefectural governments and other administrations.

However, according to the Joso Municipal Government, the trash disposal company embroiled in the May 15 inferno only had permission as a secondhand dealer, not to collect industrial waste and disposed household appliances.

Legal infractions relating to trash collections are assumed to be practiced in various regions across Japan. A representative of the Tokyo Industrial Waste Association, consisting of industrial waste disposal company officials, stated, "It's difficult to ensure that illegal operators also practice thorough fire prevention measures."

(Japanese original by Toshiyuki Suzuki, Science & Environment News Department)

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