Pollution Seen and Unseen

So far, my blog entries have revealed the great respect and admiration I hold for Japan and Japanese culture. This post tempers that view with a dose of reality. All is not perfect in Japan.

_DSC1670I wrote previously about how clean Japan is. There are millions of people living in Japan’s largest cities, though, and no matter how good they are about properly disposing of litter, great masses of people so densely situated cannot hide the environmental impact they make.

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World Tower Comparison
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Yokohama tower elevator speedometer (750meters/min)

Every city has one or more large Ferris wheels and usually at least one tall building or tower that has an observation deck from which to view the area from above. I viewed Yokohama from the Yokohama Landmark Tower which stands 296.3 meters (972 feet) high. In Tokyo I waited in a very long line to ascend the new Tokyo Skytree. It was completed in 2010. At 634 meters (2,080 feet), it is the tallest structure in Japan and the tallest tower in the world (the tallest building, as of this writing, is the 828-meter Burj Khalifa in Dubai; I leave it to the reader to figure out the difference between a tower and a building).

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Yokohama Landmark Tower
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Tokyo Skytree

Three things impressed me about both towers: 1) the speed and smoothness of the elevators (the Yokohama lift reached a speed of 750m/minute or 28mph), 2) the amazing view of the respective cities, and 3) the haze of air pollution. Cars and trucks on the street were new, and one didn’t see visible exhaust pouring from any of the vehicles, but the sheer number of vehicles adds up and the resulting haze is unmistakable.

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Tokyo skyline

The entire month I was in Japan I suffered from a constant running nose. I thought it might have been the pollen from all the blooming flowers, but the allergies did not let up when there were none in bloom. Maybe it was cedar tree pollen. Or maybe it was aggravated by air pollution.

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Yokohama skyline

No one drinks water from the tap, and to my palate — spoiled by the excellent tap water we enjoy in the Pacific Northwest — water from Japanese water fountains tasted pretty bad. Bottled water is sold and consumed everywhere, along with bottled and canned soft drinks and alcoholic drinks. I did see water filters in a few homes. Fortunately, Japan does seem to do a good job conserving and recycling water, as I have written here, here, and here. I did not see a single empty bottle or can littering the ground or rolling around on a sidewalk or street the entire month I was there.

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I found “The O.N.E” in Japan

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bentoThe Japanese are known for the beautiful packaging and gorgeous gift paper in which everything is precisely wrapped and presented. Every store has boxed goodies already gift-wrapped and intended as omiage (gifts and offerings). The bento lunches we bought and consumed on the train looked like beautiful, thin, wooden box trays, but in fact were made of some kind of plastic foam. I had to imagine the amount of waste these discarded lunch containers generated.

Although I did see more recycling receptacles than trash bins, I did not get the sense they were as diligently used as they are in Germany. So where does all this trash go? You don’t see it, and I don’t know, but I fear Japan generates a lot of waste in the form of packaging and discarded gift wrap. Could they be contributing to the Great Pacific garbage patch? Are they burning a lot of trash or burying it? Given the extreme limits on space and land, I cannot imagine they use landfills, at least within Japan.

So I did a little research. It appears that Japan does take recycling pretty seriously, and the sorting of trash can be dizzyingly complex. On the other hand, even though the trash may be meticulously sorted, a lot of it is being burned, not recycled.

To Japan’s credit, they have developed more efficient and less polluting ways of incineration, and Japan incinerates the same percentage of its waste as the U.S. puts into landfills: 69%. Incineration may be better than landfill in some ways, but the U.S. and Japan certainly could learn from many European countries, some of which recycle 50-70% of their waste and derive energy from the remainder.

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