Ever wondered why the world’s largest metropolis is so clean? Ask Watanabe Ayumu. One of Tokyo’s small army of waste collectors, Watanabe’s day can start as early as 6 a.m., to beat traffic. From 8 a.m. he and his colleagues collect paper, PET plastic bottles, non-burnable waste such as metals, ceramics, and electronics, or, the most common by weight, so-called burnable waste, from homes and businesses across the 23 wards that make up Tokyo.
With 21 incinerators in Tokyo, and more than 1,000 operating nationwide amid an aging population, there is little appetite for more. So, companies like Hitachi Zosen, Marubeni, JFE Engineering and Itochu, backed by the Japanese state, are looking to export incineration technology to a region facing a growing waste crisis – Southeast Asia, according to their websites and local media reports. But there, workers, activists and environmentalists question whether burning is really as clean as proponents argue it is.
“Many countries in Asia are panicking because there is no space to build new landfills, and trying to compensate for it by building an incinerator,” said Yobel Novian Putra, an Indonesian-based campaigner with GAIA-Asia Pacific, a non-profit that opposes incineration. “Waste is a big problem, but they are investing in the wrong solution, and potentially wasting a lot of time and money.”
The 1,000-plus incinerators across Japan are often promoted as a model for sustainable waste management around the world. The fact that, in major cities, so many incinerators are often located in residential areas is shown as a sign of broad public acceptance.
Making incineration clean
However, prior to 2000, incineration faced ample opposition from local communities and environmentalists in Japan. Burning waste produces numerous dangerous pollutants, including dioxins, which, according to the World Health Organization, is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions
“Japanese citizens opposed the construction of waste to energy plants especially before 2000. We had a serious issue of dioxin emissions,” said Takaoka Masaki, a professor and chair of the Waste to Energy Research Council at Kyoto University. “But pollution control has improved, so now there is [less] emission from the waste to energy plants, so many citizens accept it.”
Dioxin concerns were common in the 1990s, even garnering global attention. In 2000, protests against the Suginami Incinerator in Tokyo, where at least 400 locals were sickened due to pollution, forced the government to pass strict regulations on dioxin emissions, which led to incinerators, including Suginami, to be rebuilt or retrofitted with better pollution control technology.
The impact can be seen in plants such as the Tamagawa Incinerator in Ota, Tokyo. There, during a site visit by this writer, a technician noted that the pollution controls at the plant cost twice as much as the trash-burning incinerator itself. This, in turn, makes incineration costly, among the most expensive ways to generate electricity in the world.
Also important to Tokyo’s incinerators operating safely and cleanly are the workers who run them. This includes the collectors who gather waste, which must be well segregated in order for incinerators to run efficiently, to the highly skilled staff working alongside the incinerator and pollution controls. Many are represented by the Tokyo Sanitation Workers Union.
According to Nishimura Yoshikatsu, an incinerator technician and a member of the Tokyo Sanitation Workers Union executive committee, prior to 1976, workplace accidents were too common, claiming the lives of some union members. Staff now work in teams, and improve training and safety awareness
“Since 1976, we have not had any death or any serious hazards of unionized workers. It’s not a form that is visible to us, but we definitely see the effect,” said Nishimura.
For Nishimura, the often invisible role that workers play, and the union’s ability to push for better safety and working conditions, is key to the effectiveness and sustainability of Tokyo’s waste management system.
Exporting just the technology
Activists say that if incineration plants are exported, they will not have Japan’s strict pollution controls, or unionized worker model. In Southeast Asia, waste collection is non-unionized, and workers are not even paid regular wages. In countries like Indonesia, millions of informal waste pickers are the ones collecting, sorting and segregating waste, making money only from what is recyclable or reusable, and are often from the most marginalized members of society.
“There are many waste pickers in Indonesia and they have reduced waste by themselves,” said Pris Polly Lengkong, Chairman of the Indonesian Waste Pickers Union (Ikatan Pemulung Indonesia).
Pris’s organization, which is a member of the global alliance WIEGO, is fighting for waste pickers to be recognized for the work they do to reduce and manage waste in growing megacities like Jakarta. And he sees a direct threat from incineration, which, he fears, will harm the livelihoods of waste pickers by removing their access to landfills.
It’s not just Indonesia. In Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, governments are pushing incineration as a solution to growing plastic waste management challenges across the region. With stories about rivers clogged or wildlife choking on plastic making global headlines, at least 30 incinerators are newly opened, under construction, or planned in these three countries alone.
Japan is playing a leading role in this. In 2019, when the country hosted the G20 Summit, the government pushed incineration as part of marine litter reduction efforts. Since then, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Japanese International Cooperative Agency, and the Kitakyushu International Techno-cooperative Association, have been working in Southeast Asia to promote incineration in cities like Davao and Cebu in the Philippines, and Bandung and Surabaya in Indonesia.
One reason might be that Japan’s market is saturated. Since the opening of the first modern incinerator in Osaka in 1960 and the rapid expansion of incineration alongside Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1970s and 80s, most of Japan’s waste has been burned. But in Tokyo, which has 21 incinerators run by the Clean Association of Tokyo 23, waste generation peaked in 1989 at 4.9 millions tons, falling to less than 3 million tons in 2019.
For companies like Hitachi Zosen and Marubeni, that means they must look overseas.
But there is already pushback. In Davao, Philippines, a project supported by the Japanese government is seeing opposition from workers and community members. Already, the closing of the local landfill has forced 100 waste pickers to move.
Pris is worried the same thing will happen in Indonesia. The first incinerator is already operating, in a suburb of the capital Jakarta, and thus far, workers have not been involved at all. He is also concerned that the technology Indonesia is getting may not be as clean or modern as those operating in Tokyo.
“If I am not mistaken, Japanese technology from 20 years ago is being installed in Indonesia. Japan is no longer using it,” said Pris.
According to GAIA-Asia Pacific, pollution controls and monitoring requirements are far weaker in Southeast Asia than in Japan, and there are concerns that, in order to lower costs, pollution control technology will be sacrificed. A spokesperson from Hitachi Zosen, which provides technology for dozens of incinerators in Asia and is looking to export to both Indonesia and Thailand, noted that they only follow local pollution rules, not those of Japan.
“It’s waste colonialism,” said Yobel. “They push a lower standard in Southeast Asia, and it’s frustrating. We don’t have a right over what we want.”
For Pris, he has a simple request for officials both in Indonesia, but also from overseas. Instead of importing an expensive, dangerous technology, why not empower waste pickers to solve the waste crisis?
“Why spend money on incinerators that cost billions of rupiah?” said Pris. “It is such a waste of money. It is better to be used on how to help waste pickers prosper.” He noted how they manage and reduce waste despite limited resources, and imagines how, with proper training, fair wages, and access to health and social services, they could do so much more.
“These are more humane, wiser ways for governments to [address waste] than technology that wastes money,” said Pris.
Additional research for this article was conducted by Yosepha Pusparisa.