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!

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