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March 31, 2007


Recent Trends in Waste Materials - From Illegal Dumping To Recyclable Waste Export

ishiwatasan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Masayoshi Ishiwata, Manager of Inba Regional Development Center, Chiba Prefecture

I often have the chance to give lectures like this because I have visited numerous illegal dumping sites as a municipal worker. Requests for such lectures in and around Nagoya have recently been increasing, and this may indicate that waste treatment in the Nagoya area is unable to cope with its substantial economic growth. In the Tokyo metropolitan area, waste treatment is now more organized; however, industrial waste was previously collected from the Tokyo area and taken to Chiba Prefecture, where large amounts were dumped illegally. At some dumping sites, we had to wear gas masks because, for example, drums containing highly toxic waste were thrown from cliffs. Today, I'd like to discuss the present situation regarding waste materials with reference to my experience in visiting illegal dumping sites.

Aspects of Illegal Dumping

The term 'illegal dumping' has many aspects; legal, environmental, economic and social.

From a legal point of view, illegal dumping is a violation of Section 16 of the Waste Management Law. If you dump waste someone else's land without permission, you violate Civil Law, or if you dump waste in the sea, you violate the Seawater Protection Law. Some people consider illegal dumping to be environmental contamination. Although this may seem obvious, it's not always correct. For example, if slabs of concrete are dumped on a road side, it doesn't directly cause environmental contamination. So, it depends on whether we consider legal or environmental factors, and the responses will be different. If a crime is committed, arrests and crime prevention are needed, while from an environmental point of view, contamination needs to be prevented and eliminated.

There is another view that illegal dumping is caused by material imbalances, and that waste disposal is a problem due to its relative costs. To save money, some companies choose illegal dumping. To combat such cases, waste materials can be made positive property. The expense of waste disposal can be considered an investment, particularly if waste is recycled as secondary materials and if the company's public relations are taken into account.

In addition, illegal dumping has a regional aspect, in the sense that waste from urban areas is dumped in rural areas, and waste from developed countries is dumped in developing countries. In Waste Management Law, industrial waste is often handled by the national government, while domestic waste is handled by local authorities. In other words, industrial waste can be transported anywhere in Japan. In response, Chiba Prefecture and other local governments often control the influx of waste by not accepting waste from Tokyo. Japan's Ministry of the Environment claims that such control is illegal; however, the local governments insist that it's their right to implement such measures.

The Complex Mechanisms Surrounding Illegal Dumping

The mechanisms surrounding illegal dumping have both visible and invisible elements. On the surface of the illegal dumping field, there are people known as ana-ya, ippatsu-ya and matome-ya: ana-ya are those people who dig the hole to bury the waste at a dumping site; ippatsu-ya are those people who deliver the waste to the site by dump truck; and matome-ya act as coordinators between ana-ya and ippatsu-ya. Organized gangs are often involved in this type of activity. Authorized waste-disposal facilities are also occasionally involved, as they are subjected to economic pressures. Disposing of waste in this way is illegal and those involved risk criminal charges if they are caught.

Moreover, in the industrial world, waste disposal has traditionally been entrusted to others in the supply chain. However, things are improving because notions such as supply-chain management, life cycle assessment, and product liability are helping manufacturers take responsibility for their products. The government also has problems, as tightening regulations tends to leave gaps in supply and demand. If there are such gaps, illegal dumping is considered by some to be a necessary evil. Professionals believe that Waste Management Law is full of loopholes. It is therefore important to understand that the problem of illegal dumping is a multi-faceted issue.

This mechanism is further complicated by the fact that legal waste disposal and the subculture of illegal dumping cannot truly be separated. This is because waste-discharging manufacturers entrust waste disposal to unauthorized facilities and waste is carried to illegal dumping sites through ippatsu-ya, matome-ya and ana-ya. When illegal dumping sites are excavated and the waste is traced upward, it is often the case that the waste was entrusted to an authorized waste disposal facility and was dumped illegally. Waste at large-scale sites tends to go through authorized facilities because unauthorized facilities are not able to collect hundreds of thousands of tons of waste.

Changing of Waste Material Business

As I said earlier, there are now opportunities to offset the costs of waste disposal, and in fact, businesses related the collection and disposal of waste materials are now greatly expanding. There has also been a change in the global environment, with rapid economic growth in Brazil, Russia, India and China. The fiscal 2005 figures for the volume of the waste export issued by Japan's Finance Ministry show that the majority of waste plastic and copper go to China via Hong Kong and Taiwan, and more than 80 percent of used paper also goes to China. Enormous amounts of waste materials are also exported from the European Union and the United States to China. These increases in such business were unthinkable 10 years ago.

Let's look back over the changes in the waste material business. Due to a lack of disposal facilities and high recycling costs, the so-called golden days of illegal dumping continued until 2000. In 2001, legislation on recycling began to be introduced in developed countries, and a series of recycling laws was enacted in Japan. Then, in 2003, recycling and the export boom started, by October 2003, which was the month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, international resource prices had turned around. This marked the start of an era in which waste is considered a resource, rather than scrap.

The price of domestic scrap iron, which reached a post-war low in June 2001, soared by about 5 times to 30,000 yen per ton in 2004. Also, the price of waste plastics almost doubled. For these reasons, the waste material export industry grew, and this provoked the hollowing of the domestic recycling system; for example, the operating costs of domestic recycling facilities for plastic bottles decreased by 50 percent. This happened not only in Japan, but also in EU countries, such as Germany.

By 2006, the price of nonferrous scrap had doubled, and incidents of theft had been increasingly seen; for example, grating covers, flower stands and incense holders have gone missing from graves. People who collect such stolen goods are known as kai-ko, meaning buyer. Wrecking companies sometimes scrap such items without permission and pass them on to brokers. Electrical waste and stock from deserted stores have also been targeted. There have been reports that closing pachinko parlors have had pachinko balls, coins and various cables stolen. There is thought to be a syndicate of brokers for stolen metal goods, which are exported to Russia, North Korea, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, the UAE, Iran and Nigeria, through scrappers.

Can We Eliminate Illegal Dumping?

When illegal dumping is flourishing, what steps can we take to eliminate it? There are two possible approaches: legal measures and economic measures, such as reorganizing the industry. As legal measures, regulations should be tightened and the penalties for breaking the law should be increased. For example, if the waste found at an illegal dumping site belongs to a major company, the company should be penalized. At the same time, pernicious companies and waste disposal facilities should be reduced; however, caution is required because reducing the number of these facilities can increase the demand for illegal dumping services.

In addition to regulations and developing good standing among companies and waste disposal facilities, we need to cultivate a sense of balance between supply and demand, thereby improving the whole industry. Because gaps in economic structural supply and demand contribute to illegal dumping, we should attempt to fills these gaps in other ways.

However, as there are various factors contributing to the supply and demand gap, it's a difficult problem. Socially, there is discrimination against minorities, legally, there are regulations full of loopholes and regional differences in industrial and domestic waste, and economically, there is a disparity in income and property, and the existence of a black market. Once the discrimination and disparity are in place, it's difficult to solve by individual means, and this will eventually develop into an exploitative price gap structure, in which some people monopolize the price gap, excess profits and acquired rights. Illegal dumping flourishes under such conditions.

How long will the Flowering Industrial Waste Material Business Last?

If the flowering industrial waste material business assumes a society that discharges a lot of waste, the situation might be said to be quite dangerous. As China now purchases a lot of waste as raw materials and this leads to higher prices, and the waste recycling industry and the export industry are expanding to becoming the basis of a market economy, it appears that the recycling-based society is becoming realized. Meanwhile, a lot of resources are being used by the rapid economic growth in China. One must consider global waste cycles, not only those that occur locally. It is clear that China cannot import waste indefinitely, and they will soon have to find ways to dispose of increasing amounts of domestic waste.

The definition of waste has recently changed; materials that used to be considered scrap are now considered to be a resource. Because disposal is an expense, illegal dumping continues to happen; however, companies should consider such expenses to be an investment. There is a degree of social support for environmentally responsible companies, for example, some financial institutions lend money at lower interest rates and socially responsible investments are available.

Create New Words and Create a New World

If people create settlements or cities, waste is produced. As this activity has continued unbroken for thousands of years, overcoming this problem is now more urgent than ever. What is the key to changing human nature and in this new era? I think the key is finding new words. Words such as sustainability, recycling-based society, zero emissions and ecological footprint, have become more common over the last 10 years. But these words alone are not enough to break away from traditional concepts.

In order to explain these past five years, in which the waste world has changed rapidly, decade-old words are not good enough. As long as we use old words, we will never be able to explain new phenomena. We need to coin new words, learning from the traditional concepts and values expressed by our vocabulary today. And simply learning such words from someone else is not enough; I encourage you to find them by yourselves, because people who can find new words are sure to change the era.