Technology, Ecology & Art: Garbage Incineration in Japan

Our group in the Hundertwasser Lobby

Yesterday our family visited the Maishima Incineration Plant located near the port of Osaka. Japan is the world leader in burning garbage to produce electricity. Land is precious in this crowded island nation, and landfills are not a good option.

The plant deals with garbage in three ways. Most waste is burned at extremely hot temperatures. The heat is converted to electricity through steam and turbines. Most of the electricity goes to power the plant itself, but the excess electricity is sold back to the municipal electrical grid. The leftover ash is used in land reclamation projects or converted to bricks to pave roads and sidewalks. Japan and in many other countries in Asia, artificial islands are quite common near the coasts of cities. In fact, the main international airport, Kansai International Airport (KIX) is an artificial island.

Large items, such as furniture, bicycles, etc. goes through a different process. The recyclable metals, iron and aluminum are converted to pellets and sent to recycling plants. The leftovers are either crushed into small blocks or burned. The 15 cm – 40 cm blocks are used with ash in land reclamation projects.

Mom and Owen

Incineration plants started in the 1990s and were found to emit toxins into the environment. Today, much of the plants are devoted to cleaning by-products before they are released.

Incineration plants are common in Japan. The Maishima plant is one of six in the Osaka metropolitan area. It handles around 900 tonnes of waste per day. The guide estimated that Osaka disposes approximately 36,000 tonnes per day. With a growing world population living at a higher standard of living than ever before, protecting the planet is an increased concern of mine. I am worried about climate change and the quality of life on earth being lessened by our wasteful lifestyles. I agree it is good to burn garbage instead of just burying it, but it would be better to reduce the amount of waste generated in our lives.

Control Room

On a small level, I have been tracking the waste generation of our family. We recycle glass, metal and paper through the excellent Minoh city recycling program. I’ve started to compost our vegetable matter at school. This has reduced our waste significantly. However, a big problem is packaging. The amount of plastic used to protect, transport and display products is crazy. As a consumer, it is impossible to escape!

View of facade from rooftop garden

What make the Maishima unique is the architecture of the plant. City officials commissions the Austrian/New Zealand artist and architect, Friednesreich Hundertwasser to improve the facade of the plant. Hundertwasser was a fascinating artist and a man ahead of his time. His mother was Jewish and father German, and he escaped death by hidingbill his maternal origins. He became quite a famous architect and applied artist after World War II. Hundertwasser detested straight lines and the grey monotony of city buildings. He was also one of the first architects to incorporate nature in his buildings and believed that planting trees in cities, helped well-being. We visited his famous apartment block in Vienna years ago. Hundertwasser was married to a Japanese women in the 1960s which may be the connection to Japan.

Compared to most of the boring, industrial design of buildings in Japan, I am happy that they invested in making it beautiful. It was uplifting to walk around the roof top garden and it has become of tourist destination and raised awareness of sustainability. Hundertwasser thought the project brought “technology, ecology and art in harmony” and I have to agree!

Peak Cherry Blossom Season

It is peak cherry blossom (sakura) season in Osaka this week. I followed the Senri River yesterday on my bike ride to enjoy the blossoms and see the many picnics and parties taking place around cherry trees.

Kita Senri Park Sunday afternoon

Hanami, or “flower-viewing” is a long tradition in Japan. The change of seasons and the ephemeral nature of these changes plays a prominent role in Japanese culture. I saw hundreds of people holding picnics and playing in parks under the cherry trees.

There are thousands of cherry trees in Osaka. Most line rivers and canals, but they are also found alongside many streets and parks. We are finally having some nice weather after a cold March and so it was so pleasurable to ride a bike yesterday.

Cherry trees alongside the Senri River in Minoh

The Pleasure of Cycling!

Lots of open road in Minoh

I appreciate the ease of cycling in Japan and our location so close to the Minoh Quasi National Park. With safe drivers and well-built roads, cycling is so easy here! I don’t think I will live in a place again where I can ride daily just about anywhere. There are many dedicated bike and pedestrian paths. The infrastructure is better than in the USA with no broken glass, pot holes, garbage and other barriers to a smooth ride. I greatly appreciate being able to ride daily.

The view from the bridge over the Ai River

Cycling is good exercise and stress-relieving for me. It is also a time to spend with my children when I can convince one of them to go with me. Oliver and I did a ride at sunset on Friday to enjoy the sakura blossoms that are all over the city this week.

“Old man look” when taking a selfie

Oliver Begins Volleyball Season

The Senri & Osaka International Schools Sabers began their middle school volleyball season with a victory over Canadian Academy from Kobe yesterday. Nadia and I were impressed with his serving and twice he served the maximum five times for five points in the matches. They played six games and Oliver played in 3 of the 6.

Oliver is going through puberty right now and his body is developing rapidly. He is much stronger and athletic this year than in previous years. He enjoys the camaraderie of playing with his friends. The games are played on Saturday mornings in Japan because schools do not want to miss classes for traveling to games. It is a shame more parents and students do not attend the games, but most people do not like to come out on a Saturday morning.

It is such a pleasure to watch my children play team sports. Just having them in an activity and learning to be a good teammate is valuable.

Book Review: The Wall

Climate change has been on my mind since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published last October. It predicted a likely 1.5 C rise in temperature between 2030 – 2052. That will hopefully be sometime in my lifetime. A change of +4 Celsius is predicted by the end of this century. I will be long gone, but I feel for my children and grand children. They will feel the brunt of it. All that I have experienced in my 50 years on planet earth is less snow in my birthplace of northern Michigan. However, I think more is coming. Reading the predicted effects of this rise in the report are concerning and I do not want to pass my later years and more importantly, the lives of my descendants in a greatly diminished natural world.

John Lanchester’s The Wall is set in the UK in a post-climate change future. It is sort of a science fiction book, but it is also an exciting thriller, with action scenes, a love story and a good plot. My only complaint about the book is I wish he would have written more! I will not spoil the ending, but I wanted to know more about what happens to the protagonists.

“The Wall” around Great Britain is to keep out “The Others” and all young people have a mandatory two-year service they need to guard the wall. If their section of the wall allows people over, they are set to sea. The story centers around a young man named Cavanaugh and his girlfriend Hifa.

Climate change has lessened the quality of life of all with rising seas taking away beaches and a lack of variety of agricultural crops. The younger generation has a real hate and disdain for the older generation that caused climate change. I think that was a bit unrealistic because climate change has been taking place for several generations and I don’t think they would be blamed. I read the book in less than a week during my bouts of insomnia an d highly recommend it!

Lanchester mentions the Elite, the ruling class of the future. They are the only people allowed to fly on planes and live separate lives from the majority of people. With income inequality as it is today, we are heading towards that future. I wish Lanchester would have written more about this class in the book.

But the thing I learned that week was how much nicer life could be if you had somebody else to do all the boring and difficult bits for you. Having Help was like having a life upgrade.

Lanchester, John, The Wall (2019)

If the Others survive getting over the wall, they are almost always caught and have the choice of being killed or becoming a slave (Help). Living these past five years in Japan with limited domestic help has made me understand this quote. I spend 2+ hours per day on chores around the house.

Age is a terrible thing, a terrible opponent. People of your time in life don’t understand this but you come to find it to be true, perhaps the only thing which is true for all humans everywhere, the terribleness of age. Our deepest piece of common humanity.

Visiting Hong Kong

Morning View of HK from the Avenue of the Stars

Hong Kong is one of the iconic exotic expatriate locales. The place has a vibrancy and bustle that one can feel. Because of the high population density, I wouldn’t want to live there, but for it is perfect for a week-long visit. 

It is over 20 years in Chinese control since the British handed it over in 1997. Hong Kong is considered a special administrative zone by the Chinese and it has its own visa regulations, currency, flag, etc. However, it is definitely under control from Beijing. As they are doing all over the world, Beijing has put in much infrastructure, including the world’s longest bridge to the other former foreign colony, Macau, which I visited in 2015. 

Star Ferry Crossing
Star Ferry Crossing

My friends, Malcolm and Ingela, former Hong Kong residents, showed us around so we got a good taste of the place. Crossing Victoria Harbor on the Star Ferry is according to my British friends, one of the things you have to do in life. After quick authentic fish n’ chips at the pier, we hopped on the 2.20 HK dollar old boat. We enjoyed the light show from the Kowloon side. 

I wish I had come here 30 years ago, instead of at age 51. The night life in the hills of Hong Kong island was extremely buzzing with young expatriates partying, Maseratis parked outside of Hard Rock and young people looking for a good time. It would have been fun if I was a young, single man. We met a couple of young female Hong Kongers taking donations from UNICEF. One of them is attending the University of Toronto. Being teachers, we had to ask about her schooling. In her engineering program, she enjoys the relaxed nature of the mathematics compared to her high school in Hong Kong. She said they get 3 minutes in Toronto to work through a problem, but in HK, one gets 30 seconds! 

Bamboo Scaffolding – Hong Kong Island

The islands of Hong Kong are quite mountainous and that limits the amount of land that people can live. It makes the population density even greater. There are escalators to assist getting people from the harbor up the mountain through the restaurant and bar districts. We didn’t get to the most expensive real estate in the world, the luxury apartments in the “peak” on top of the mountains of Hong Kong Island. The scale of the office buildings and apartments on Hong Kong rivals Manhattan, but even closer together. 

It was fun to pretend we were financial traders and bankers after work, sitting on the steps of the pier having a beer while looking at the Kowloon skyline. I think of the many Brits who did this through the years. 

Bar & Restaurant District

We only really saw the flashy, tourists parts of the city and I am sure there are poor and crowded apartment blocks. Nine million people squeezed into a small area is crazy and in the taxi ride to Lantau Island to Kowloon on my first night, the sheer massive walls of cubicle apartments is remarkable. So many people squeezed in such a small area. It must impact you view of the world. F

I was impressed with the internet connection in the hotels, convention centers, airport, etc. So much better than mainland China. It was cool to feel the power and rise of China, in the city and at the conference. Country number 66 in my life was fun to visit and I will fondly remember my brief time in Hong Kong. 

Impressions of Bangkok

Bangkok Electrical Complexity

This is my fourth trip to Bangkok. I am not staying downtown near the river like in my previous visits. I am attending the East Asia Regional Council of Schools teachers conference and it is hosted by the International School of Bangkok (ISB). It was an one-hour ride through heavy traffic yesterday from the airport to the Ibis Impact Hotel where I am staying. The hotel serves the IMPACT Muang Thong Thani, which is a huge convention center, arena, sports facilities, etc.

ISB moved from the center years ago to gain space for a gorgeous purpose-built school and campus. An expatriate gated community has grown around the school. It is an oasis from the noisy, litter-strewn and busy streets that make up most of the city. I am happy to be in the tropics again. Winters are cold in Japan and houses are not insulated so one feels the cold both outside and inside. It was refreshing to walk in the heavy, tropical air last night. The hotel is a 20 to 40-minutes taxi ride from the school, depending of course, on the ubiquitous traffic of Bangkok. Much like Los Angeles, it really drives peoples’ lives, and you need to be aware of travel times and routes. The city desperately needs better public transport. 

Final Day of campaigning for the opposition party

The neighborhood around the hotel is being built up with a new mall that is in the process of opening. There are many Chinese-style, huge apartment buildings and so the street life is quite lively. There is much construction projects in progress and the vacant land is rapidly being developed. 

After a six-hour flight and the taxi ride, it was refreshing to take a shower and have some Thai spring vegetable rolls and bubble tea at the mall. D

Sewers, barriers and rubble make it difficult to walk in Bangkok

Day 2 – After the first day of the conference I got back to my hotel room and went for a walk so I could feel refreshed and stay awake. I forgot that I was not in Japan and much of the developing world, including Bangkok, is not a place conducive to pedestrians! My goal was to walk about an artificial lake near the hotel and loop back around to the local shopping mall. It was difficult to go over traffic barriers, unpleasant to smell the odors coming from an open sewer and dodging traffic to cross streets. It is a shame because it is so nice to walk in the silky tropical nighttime air. I take it for granted in Japan to have easy and safe walking/cycling paths everywhere in the city and countryside. 

Street side restaurant

Day 3 – This morning I read in the Economist that Thailand is the country with the most wealth inequality in the world. Something like 1% of the population owns a large percentage of the wealth. They are holding the first national elections tomorrow in 9 years. The previous government was interrupted by a military coup in May of 2014, the 32nd coup in Thailand’s history. A junta of military generals has controlled the country ever since. They have a parliamentary system and the prime minister, Prayuth Chan Ocha, is vying with some other parties to gain a majority. The eldest sister of new King tried to run for the former party in power, UDD, but she was not allowed. UDD is backed by a telecommunications mogul who was ousted from power in 2006 and his sister was taken out by the military in the aforementioned coup in 2014. 

Bangkok skyline from the Radisson Blu Hotel Roof

You can see many signs and campaign rallies around the city. After nine years of no elections, commentators are predicting almost 90% turnout. The military is selling the idea of peace and stability and all parties are talking a lot about anti-corruption. I am curious to see if they will have a result and what direction the country will go in. Thailand is a kingdom and the royal family, especially the former king, is revered and beloved by Thais. His son recently took over after the death of his father. He was a bit of a playboy living in Germany, but he seems to be fulfilling the role as monarch. 

Traffic is a disaster here in the city and signs of poverty are everywhere. I hope the leadership of Bangkok and Thailand can help the poor here in this very friendly and colorful country.