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Huge amounts of typhoon-damaged trash pile up in Japan

People affected by the disaster and volunteers are seen taking furniture and other items to a dump site in Akanuma Park, in Nagano, Nagano Prefecture, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Mainichi/Daiki Takikawa)

Widespread flooding in Japan brought by Typhoon Hagibis' torrential rains has damaged countless items of furniture and other household goods, producing huge volumes of trash, or disaster refuse, which is in need of dumping.

In the city of Nagano alone, where the Chikuma River burst its banks and inundated some 5,000 homes with floodwater, temporary official trash dumps have been set up. But their distance from affected areas and other factors mean residents are having difficulty using them easily, and as a result many local parks and fields have become temporary waste-collection locations.

On Oct. 26 and 27, the Mainichi Shimbun visited Akanuma Park in the city of Nagano in Nagano Prefecture, central Japan. Situated around 1 kilometer north of where the river's banks burst, the park is surrounded by apple fields, and measures about 2 hectares.

A small truck being used to dispose of trash is seen navigating the muddy roads of Akanuma Park in Nagano, Nagano Prefecture, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Mainichi/Daiki Takikawa)

Small trucks were lining up continuously to take their turn throwing away futons, tatami mats and other items soiled by mud and water. The official temporary dumping ground established by the city government is reportedly difficult to use, so in an act of desperation a neighborhood association turned the area into a temporary waste-collection ground.

There are reportedly at least over 30 collection grounds in the area surrounding the point where the embankment collapsed, which are not officially approved in the same way as the city government-run temporary ground.

At the park, trash piles past the roughly 3-meter-high goals on its basketball court, with broken glass, aerosol cans and fire extinguishers among the mess. A man in his 60s who lives locally said, "There are bottles with agricultural chemicals still in them, and farming equipment that hasn't had the oil wiped off it. The stuff inside some of these fridges is rotting too. My nose has gone numb from the stench."

The city government set up three locations for collecting disaster refuse, in which residents are asked to separate their trash into nine categories including non-burnable trash, scrap metal and others. But some of the sites have reached their capacity, leading the city to establish another collection location some 10 kilometers away from the affected area on Oct. 23. With traffic issues, transporting items by car takes time.

A company employee, 37, who also has a farming side business, came to the park to dump hundreds of dirty wooden boxes that had been supposed to be filled with harvested apples. "My home and the area around it are all a mess. I want the city government to set up a makeshift collection space closer than the currently designated ones."

A group of Pakistani nationals residing in nearby Toyama Prefecture who came to volunteer their assistance are seen helping with efforts to dispose of soiled tatami mats at Akanuma Park in Nagano, Nagano Prefecture, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Mainichi/Daiki Takikawa)

One 62-year-old resident of the city's Hoyasu district offered his field as a temporary collection site after his apple trees were completely knocked down by the typhoon. "Everyone is in trouble. We're all in the same boat." On the subject of the considerable distance to the official dumping ground, he said, "If you go there and back it takes up to half a day. Our recovery isn't going to proceed like that."

The city government's waste management division sought understanding, saying, "We often hear from people telling us that separating the trash is difficult, but if it is separated then we can quickly handle it to send off to places including incineration facilities. In the event that people don't have a small truck they can use to transport the items, we want them to seek help from volunteers."

In an attempt to make a breakthrough from the current situation, the Japan Self-Defense Forces worked through the night transporting trash to official collection areas after it was gathered at Akanuma Park and elsewhere from temporary trash dumps on Oct. 26 and 27.

Nationally, the Ministry of the Environment says it expects the amount of refuse generated by the flooding of homes and other damage wrought by Typhoon Hagibis to be millions of tons, way in excess of the around 1.9 million metric tons of trash created in the aftermath of the torrential rain disaster in western Japan in July 2018.

At a press conference held after a Cabinet meeting on Oct. 25, Minister of the Environment Shinjiro Koizumi told reporters that the government intends to have all trash removed from official collection areas by the end of the year.

But complete disposal of the items is expected to take over two years, and a long-term response to the issue has become necessary. In some regions, incinerator furnaces are not operating due to flood damage, and there are municipalities where the amount of trash produced outstrips their ability to process it. The environment ministry is proceeding with coordination of widespread garbage disposal in which other municipalities help bear some of the load.

Japan's Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act stipulates that refuse created by disasters must be handled in the same way as general household waste, and that the responsibility to do so falls on the municipal authority.

Following the lessons learned from the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunamis, in which some 30 million tons of waste was produced, the national government has pushed municipalities to estimate how much waste they are each likely to have in a disaster and select candidate areas for waste collection as part of plans to dispose of disaster-related trash. But by the end of March 2018, just 27% of municipalities had drawn up such a plan.

Among the reasons given for the lack of progress on the initiative is that local government employees often do not possess the specialist knowledge and skillsets required to put together the plans. The environment ministry intends to formulate a guide within the fiscal year to advise on trash separation and the order of action in initial responses to the issues.

(Japanese original by Takashi Yamashita, Integrated Digital News Center, and Toshiyuki Suzuki, Science & Environment News Department)

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