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Opinion

Asia's waste management failures reach crisis levels

Japan offers lessons in how to handle the challenge quickly and cost-effectively

A woman carries a sack of reusable items found at a garbage dump site in Dhaka.   © Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

Asia's cities have driven the region's extraordinary growth, but they have become polluted and polluting nightmares sinking under mountains of waste. While almost the entire populations of the developed West have their waste collected and disposed of hygienically, this is far from true in many Asian economies. The percentage falls as low as 20% in poorer countries such as Pakistan and Cambodia. Collection services are best in big cities, far worse in rural areas, and rarely reach the many millions in informal settlements.

Worse still is how many Asian cities dispose of most their waste in open dumps. The result is severe pollution, disease, and urban flooding. Dumps are major generators of greenhouse gases. Mumbai's huge Deonar dump is a vast concentration of methane gas which regularly catches fire.

Waste is also a major social issue. In many Asian countries, people who collect and process waste face stigmatization, as well as health risks. In India, Dalits, the lowest castes in the Hindu system, perform the most unpleasant jobs.

Better systems of collection and disposal cost money, but it is not evident that this is the entire, or even the major, problem in Asia. Policymakers have not prioritized collection and, especially, productive and ecologically sound disposal of waste. Most prefer to spend on other pressing issues, such as health and transport. The fact that the immediate victims of vast dumps are low in social hierarchies helps explain such preferences.

Unhygienic dumps are not inevitable in poorer countries. Japan offers important lessons how to transition from a nightmare of waste to a system which uses waste productively and hygienically. These lessons are especially relevant in Asia as Japan has many similarities to other Asian nations in terms of big crowded cities and import-dependence for energy and natural resources. Japan was also a country which after decades of economic growth had mountains of waste -- until it decided to do something about it.

It would be tempting, but misleading to explain this by path dependency or even culture. The Japanese word "mottai-nai" which means not letting things that have value go to waste, is said to have originated in the thirteenth century. It is still talked about in schools today.

Yet there was no straight line between the past and the present. Japan grew rich with no regard to the environment in the decades after 1950. A Ministry of the Environment was created in 1971 to counter air and water pollution which made Tokyo resemble Manila and Jakarta now. But soil contamination and many other environmental issues remained remarkably unregulated even as incomes rose. Japan began disposing of urban garbage by incineration in 1960, but the process -- which produced huge volumes of exhaust gas -- only made things worse. Dioxin levels reached a record high in the 1990s. Meanwhile, illegal dumping of the products of a now-affluent consumer society went unchecked.

Then it began to change. Beginning with the Basic Environmental Law of 1993, national laws were passed providing an overall framework for a new kind of waste management system, but leaving execution to local governments. Here are two immediate lessons from the Japanese experience. First policymakers must take the issue seriously by establishing mandates. Secondly, execution needs to be local. Waste is a local problem, and solutions need to be matched to local circumstances.

The story of the successful system which Japan put in place begins with collection of household garbage by municipalities. The streets of big cities now contain detailed roadside signs with weekly schedules and colorful icons which set the rules. Municipalities publish waste disposal guides that can be up to 30 pages. Households and companies are mandated to separate garbage into items which can be burned, such as kitchen scraps and paper, those that cannot be burned, like batteries and electronics, and things that can be recycled such as newspapers. These are collected on different schedules, and taken to different places. The rules vary across the country. In some cities regulations require polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, bottle caps to be separated from bottles classified as plastic, while in others they are recycled together as PET bottles.

What happens to the waste which is collected? In most of Asia, solid waste budgets are primarily spent on collection, but Japan devoted considerable resources to disposal also. Thirty years ago the overwhelming majority of Japanese waste went to landfills or illegal dumps. Only 5% of municipal waste was recycled. Today only 1.2% of Japanese waste goes to landfill. This is similar to the much-lauded green economy of Denmark, and much better than the U.S., which still puts over half its garbage in landfills. Most Asian countries are far higher: Indonesia and Philippines dump all their waste, not even in environmentally managed landfills.

Japan uses landfills imaginatively. Tokyo Bay now has a new forest known as the Sea Forest built on 12.3 million tons of garbage, designed by the renowned architect Tadao Ando. It was funded by public donations and planted by thousands of volunteers. Here is another Japanese lesson -- the need to engage civil society in waste management

Japan now recycles 20% of its waste, which is not high by developed country standards -- Germany and Austria recycle over half of their municipal waste -- but much higher than many other Asian countries. Organization rather than spending is fundamental to the system. Numerous startups have been created to recycle particular products, such as styrene foam used to pack fish.

The majority of Japanese waste -- some 70% -- is turned into energy. This is an extraordinary high level, which dwarfs the U.S. (13%) and beats the best-performing European nation, Sweden (50%). Japan had begun incinerating waste in the 1960s, but the process produced huge amounts of exhaust gas, which provoked public opposition to new plants. Municipalities responding by promoting clean technologies, including burning the waste over 850 C. By 2015 dioxins emitted into the atmosphere were one-50th of the 1998 level.

However there was more to this success than technology. As incinerators were located in heavily populated urban areas. An elaborate process was developed to engage stakeholders. The process of building a furnace begins with dialogue with local residents, and an assessment of environmental impacts. Furnaces are regularly designed to look good rather than be an eyesore. They often include sports and other facilities and are heated by the electricity generated by the plant. Waste serves a cultural asset.

Japanese waste management is not rocket science, and it is not even cripplingly expensive. The environment ministry calculates that the total cost of waste management is now 15,300 yen ($139) per head annually. This is a lot more than Asian countries -- the Thai government may only spend $2 per head annually on municipal waste -- but the costs of missed opportunities in waste re-use and pollution are currently very high. In any case, Japan's success was not driven by huge spending, but rather a determination to prioritize the issue, and a willingness to consider waste as a resource, rather than a costly problem. The other lessons from Japan are the importance of effective local execution, high levels of civic engagement, and imaginative public-private interaction. Talking about waste in schools, as in Japan, can bring behavioral changes. Japan provides a model of how within two decades a chaotic and polluting system of waste management can be transformed. Others in Asia should take note.

Geoffrey Jones is a professor at Harvard Business School and author of "Profits and Sustainability: A History of Green Entrepreneurship" (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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