TED Case Studies
Number 658, December, 2001
Noriko Vitkevich  

Garbage Disposal in Japan
I. General Information
II. Legal Cluster
III. Bio-Geographic Cluster
IV. Trade Cluster
V. Environment Cluster
VI. Other Clusters

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I. Identification

1. The Issue

During the recent few decades, environmental justice has been one of the major issues in the world, and some international and domestic regulations have been provided to protect the environment. However, in the reality, there are some cases which show these regulations do not work effectively. January 12, 2000, the Japanese government started to unload 122 containers which included hazardous hospital wastes that were illegally exported to the Philippines by a Japanese industrial waste disposal company. Those containers had false labeling which indicated recycling paper. This incident not only embarrassed the Japanese government who is a member of the Basel Convention, but also disclosed the Japanese attitude of low morality and irresponsibility in regards to waste and recycling. As a matter of fact, this incident is not simply the result of an enormous amount of garbage that Japan generates. It involves economical, cultural, and political aspects. This paper will discuss the reality of the Japanese waste situation and the background of why this Japanese industrial disposal company had to export hazardous waste to the Philippines illegally.


2. Description

January 12, 2000, the Japanese government started to unload 122 containers which include hazardous hospital waste that was illegally exported to the Philippines by a Japanese industrial waste disposal company. This recycling company, Nisso Ltd. Tochigi, had claimed bankruptcy already and the president of the company had been hiding somewhere. Some investigation should be going on, but there is no further information about him in public yet. Consequently, the Japanese government had to take over the responsibility for those containers. To deal with those containers, the Japanese government had to pay about 720 thousand dollars transportation and other costs, such as incineration expenses which was estimated at more than 1.2 million dollars.

The recycling company put a fraudulent notification of waste paper for recycling on the containers when they exported the containers to the Philippines. However, the Philippines found that the containers included some medical wastes, such as needles for intravenous injections, medical rubber hose and tubes, used adult and baby diapers, used sanitary napkins, discarded intravenous syringes used in blood letting, garments, and bandages. There were also electrical equipment, PVC plastic materials mixed with industrial and household wastes, styropor packing materials, sacks, plastic sheets, PVC pipes, plastic packaging materials, paper, plastic food packaging materials, and other hospital wastes. In addition, according to Green peace Japan, it turned out that the Philippine recycling company which was supposed to receive the containers to dispose, did not exist at the address on the documents. It is obvious that this Japanese recycling center has been completely irresponsible in its actions regarding of exporting waste. It seems that they hoped that the Philippines would not discover the contents of the containers and dispose them as recycling paper. This attitude is very disrespect to the Philippines and a shame to Japan. It seems that the Japanese recycling center neglected the seriousness of the danger of the false notification.

The Philippines told Japan that if they had not made sure of what was inside of the containers before processing, they would have dealt with those waste as recycling waste and, as a result, it would cause serious health danger. The return of those containers to Japan was the result of demanding from the Philippines based upon the regulation of the Basel Ban. Japan had to take these containers back at their own cost within 30 days from the notification from the Philippines.

When the illegal containers were sent back to Japan from the Philippines, Ayako Sekine, the member of Greenpeace Japan, was watching unloaded containers at the pier and expressed her shame of this illegal shipment to the Philippines because it would cause distrust toward Japan in the international community.

Also Greenpeace Japan blamed the Japanese government for its idleness. They were afraid that the Japanese government would just bury those toxic wastes in a landfill and try to eliminate this issue from the public altogether. They promised that they would watch the containers until they were taken care of appropriately. In addition, they demanded that the government should open some details about this incident to the public, such as the source of the toxic waste and the course of transport from the source of the toxic waste to the pier so that people can see who was responsible for this illegal export.


Waste Generated in Japan

It is also concerned that this incident could be only the tip of the iceberg of illegal transboundary issues from Japan to other countries. The Japanese Health and Welfare Ministry reports that, in 1996, Japan generated about 405 million tones of industrial and hazardous waste (see table 1).

Table 1 : Japanese production of industrial waste

year 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996
waste (million tones) 395 398 403 397 405 394 405

source: The Japanese Health and Welfare Ministry, 2000

The top three categories of industrial waste in 1996 were sludge (47.7%), animal excreta (17.8%), and waste from construction (15.2%). It also reports that Kanto region which includes Tokyo is the highest producer of industrial waste (27.2%) compared to all the others. The reason seems that Tokyo and its suburban have the largest population in Japan, and it is one of the most popular industry areas in Japan.

The Japanese Health and Welfare Ministry also informs that 150 million tons (37%) of industrial waste were recycled and the remaining of 250 million tons (63%) were either buried or incinerated in 1996. There is no mention of exporting of any industrial waste in this data.

Table 2 : Japanese measure of waste

(million tones)

source: The Japanese Health and Welfare Ministry, 2000

Gradually, the rate of buried is decreasing and incinerated rate is increasing. According to one of the recycling centers in Japan, the reason of this phenomena could be that the landfill in Japan is getting limited and, as a result, the cost of burying waste is increasing. Therefore, recycling centers try to incinerate waste as much as possible so that the cost will remain low. It seems that the procedure of disposal depends on cost efficiency rather than an environmentally sound manner. On the other hand, there is no remarkable change in the amount of industrial waste since 1990, nor the rate of recycling. The task of the Japanese government, recycling centers and manufacturers will be to decrease the amount of industrial waste and to increase the rate of recycling. Also it should be very helpful to decrease waste if the Japanese government educate generators about the reality of disposal because it could aware the generators of real situation of waste and change the attitude towards dumping waste.

According to the COMTRADE database of the United Nations Statistics Division, in 1998, Japan made waste exports as follows (table 3). Unfortunately, it is possible that hazardous waste could be hidden among these waste exports which are categorized as recycling waste. On the other hand, table 4 shows that Japan also imported a lot of waste as well. For example, it imported $1,618,917,000 worth of pulp and waste paper. It was a lot more than that the amount which Japan exported. The important point is that the definition of waste in not clear. As a matter of fact, it is not easy to define what waste is. Some waste could be raw materials for other countries, and the reverse is possible as well. Also, the categorization for some waste is not clear as well. For example, it is not clear what plastic waste includes. Japan exports $38,760 worth of plastic waste in 1998 and imports $1,537 worth of the same products. However, plastic waste may not mean the same products here. That could be one of the reasons why Japan imports some waste products and exports the same waste at the same time.

Table 3 : Japanese export of waste in 1998

product group
value (US$'000)
rubber synth/waste/etc.
ferrous waste/scrap
nf base metal waste nes
pulp and waste paper
plastic waste/scrap
cork natural/raw/waste
wood chips/waste
tobacco, raw and waste

source: ITC Databases : Aggregated Trade Statistics, 1998

Table 4: Japanese import of waste in 1998

  product group value (US$'000)
wood chips/waste
pulp and waste paper
NF base metal waste nes
tobacco, raw and waste
rubber synth/waste/etc.
ferrous waste/scrap
cork natural/raw/wste
plastic waste/scrap

source: ITC Databases : Aggregated Trade Statistics, 1998


Waste Imported to the Philippines

The below tables 5-8 are the trade data of Philippines import of waste from Japan. According to the Bureau of Export Trade Promotion, the Philippines import 104 different kinds of waste. I chose four kinds of waste of which significant amounts are imported from Japan.

Again, it should be mentioned that there could be a gap of recognition between the importers (the Philippines) and exporters (Japanese recycling centers) about the product. One of the Japanese recycling center's employees said that when they exported products, they would consider products not as garbage but as recycling materials because they have segregated waste and converted them to some kind of useful materials. However, it is also true that those recycling materials may need more detailed management to make full use of them. In the process of making them full usable, the importers may have to segregate more and, as a result, generate more waste out of recycling materials. Sometimes imported recycling materials generate more waste rather than useful materials. Therefore, it is possible that the importers may consider those recycling materials as garbage rather than recycling materials because sometimes it is much easier for them to just incinerate or bury it as garbage especially in the case that the country does not have strict regulations of disposing garbage.

Table 5 : Summary of merchandise import of waste & scrap of other paper or paperboard (FOV value in US dollars; January-August 2001/2000)

total imports

processed by: Bureau of Export Trade Promotion (primary source: National Statistic office [NSO])

Table 6 : Summary of merchandise import of nickel waste & scrap (FOV value in US dollars; January-August 2001/2000)

total imports

processed by: Bureau of Export Trade Promotion (primary source: National Statistic office [NSO])

Table 7 : Summary of merchandise import of waste. parings & scrap, of polyvinyl acetate & other plastic (FOV value in US dollars; January-August 2001/2000)

total imports

processed by: Bureau of Export Trade Promotion (primary source: National Statistic office [NSO])

Table 8 : Summary of merchandise import of ferrous waste & scrap. nes (FOV value in US dollars; January-August 2001/2000)

total imports

processed by: Bureau of Export Trade Promotion (primary source: National Statistic office [NSO])

The Philippines total value of imports in 2000 was 20,655,270,479 in US dollars and 20,499,139,412 dollars in 2001. Some waste imports are significantly large compared to other products, such as waste & scrap of other paper or paperboard (table 5) and nickel waste & scrap (table 6).

As you can see, exporters vary from all over the world, such as Japan, other Asian nations, USA, and EU. The quantity of products are also different among countries and years. It is not accurate to attempt making any tendency of the Philippines imports of waste and anticipating the products or quantity of them.

Domestic Problems

Domestic waste disposal in Japan is also a critical issues which some kind of solution should be provided as soon as possible. Minamata disease which was the result of mercury pollution is one of the most severe pollution diseases which still the victims are suffered.[Minamata disease]

According to the article in Time Asia, there is a plastic-waste compacting plant in Suginami, a Tokyo suburb, and this plant exposes toxic chemicals to the residential area where about 400 people live. The people who live near the waste station started to complain about health problems such as chest pain, headache, and dizziness since the waste station started to work. Several surveys by Tokyo city discovered more than 90 toxic substances around the site, including dioxin. However, there is no future plan to stop this waste station because of a cost management.

Suginami is not the only site where these kinds of pollution problem occurs. Hinodecho, an hours' ride west of Tokyo, used to be a quiet village with rich nature, but it turned into a battlefield once a dump site was opened. The garbage trucks brought 1.2 million tons of garbage and industrial waste from Tokyo and its suburban area every day. Soon the dump site in Hinodecho was filled with garbage, and a new plan to build another site next to Hinodecho had emerged. During the time, it was reported that 271 people died of cancer in less than a decade around Hinodecho, which is four times of national average.


Japanese Domestic Waste Regulations

Finally, after many complaints of health problems from the neighborhoods of each dumping site, the Japanese government started research and recognized the terrible reality of garbage dumping.

On October In 1999, the revised law of waste management was enforced. One of the most remarkable amendments was the revised manifest. The manifest is a form that a generator has to fill out, and the end-facility such as the owner of landfill has to send back to the generator a copy of a document which shows how the waste has been dealt with. It also requests to show the place where the waste goes and the date when the waste is deposed. Then a generator has to report the document to a governor within 10 days after the date of disposal. With this revised manifest system, a generator has a responsibility to make sure that the waste is disposed appropriately. It prevents any facilities, generators, and transporter from dumping waste illegally. This manifest system should be applied not only hazardous waste but also any kind of industrial waste.

On the other hand, it is true that such strict regulations would impose unnecessary burden to honest and respectable recycling centers in Japan. According to the Health and Welfare Ministry, there are about 124,830 recycling centers in Japan. They need to be licensed to deal with residential waste, industrial waste, and toxic waste. One of the employers of a recycling center in Tochigi, suburban area of Tokyo, admits the idleness of the government and says that the government should handle waste management more accurately based on the reality.

Also he has concerns that strict regulations would cause more illegal dumping both domestically and internationally because some facilities may not be able to afford these strict regulations and landfill costs which are getting more expensive. He insists that the government should have more accurate knowledge of the reality of garbage in this modern world and provide practical regulations. For example, a television set ends up going to a landfill because they can not separate a tube and its cover. If they could separate them, then this waste could be recycled. Therefore, some manufacturing techniques should be reviewed in terms of environmentally sound manners.

It is also concerned that the Japanese domestic regulations of waste would promote more waste exports abroad where the waste regulations are less strict. In addition, there are plans to support some Asian nations financially to build incinerators so that Japan can export more garbage to these nations. Japan has been blamed for covering Thai incinerator purchases by greenpeacers. This is the case that Japan has been providing financial and technical support to Thailand to build incinerators. Greenpeace reports that Japan provided 117,562 million yens (about 1,180 millions in US$) for Thailand as economic developing loans, and it blames that this long-term, low interest loan has been leveraged and led more waste import from Japan. There is one incinerator in Thailand which a Japanese steel company, NKK, supported technically and financially to build. This incinerator is capable to deal with about 140 tons of waste. However, according to the Thailand government, the area around the incinerator generates about 70 tons a day. Therefore, ironically the incinerator needs more waste to make full use, which leads more import of waste from domestic and international.

The Basel Ban regulates any transboundary movement of hazardous wastes internationally, especially from OECD to non-OECD countries. The Japanese waste management law regulates residential and industrial waste. It is true that both regulations contribute to environmentally sound manners. However, it may not be enough in terms of reducing or generating garbage and increasing the rate of recycling. It would be impossible to do so effectively without reviewing manufacturing techniques. Also the segregated disposal would be one of the initially critical steps in ensuring a sound environmental future for Japan and the developing countries that receive waste.

Over all, Japan has been generating a lot of garbage and having trouble of getting rid of wastes. Even though the Japanese government provides strict regulations of waste, sometimes they would be a burden to respectable recycling companies. It is possible that these strict regulations would promote more illegal disposal by recycling centers who can not afford to manage wastes legally. As a result, they may have to export more waste abroad where the regulations are less strict and the cost are lower. On the other hand, it is a fact that non-OECD nations import waste because of financial issues. Sometimes waste could be an important import item for non-OECD countries especially when a nation builds an incinerator because they want to take full advantage of it. As a result, the environmental issue might be secondary.


3. Related Cases

Basel historical review of the Basel Ban
Basmex The Basel Ban and Mexico case
Camwaste illegal dumping from Taiwan to Cambodia
Khain US dumps toxic waste in the Kahain Sea
Auswaste The Basel Ban and Australia
Oauwaste Africa and toxic waste dumping

Polwaste Poland and toxic trade
Taiwgar Taiwan and toxic waste


4. Author and Date:

Noriko Vitkevich, Dec. 2001


II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status: Agreement and in progress

The Basel Convention is one of the largest conventions which is under the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal. The convention was held on 22 March 1989 at Basel, Switzerland. It was initiated in response to numerous international scandals regarding hazardous waste from Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to non-OECD countries.

There are 133 countries who are the member of the convention. Following is the list of the countries.

Africa 28 countries
Asia and Pacific 32 countries
Western Europe 27 countries
Central and eastern Europe 19 countries
Latin America and the Caribbean 27 countries

Also, it divides members into OECD and non-OECD countries. There are 29 OECD countries, which are the wealthiest and most industrialized countries. Japan is one of the OECD countries, and the Philippine is one of the non-OECD countries.

In 1994, the Basel Ban was established. There are some remarkable points in the ban. According to the summary of the provisions of the Basel Convention, illegal traffic is defined as any transboundary movement of hazardous wastes or other wastes without notification, without the consent, with consent obtained from States concerned through falsification, misrepresentation or fraud. In addition, if one state finds the illegal traffic, the waste has to be taken back by the exporter within 30 days from the time the State of export has been informed about the illegal traffic.

The case of Japan and the Philippines was an illegal traffic because it was the consent through falsification. The 122 containers, which contained toxic medical wastes, had the labels which said recycled paper. Therefore, these containers had to be sent back to Japan at their own cost within 30 days.

Despite the efforts of the member of the convention and greenpeace members, it is not easy to track all the transport of toxic waste, and there is still much illegal traffic in the world. In addition, according to Lipman, one of the weaknesses of the Convention is that the United States, which is the largest generator in the world, has not become a member of the Convention. Consequently, the Basel Convention can not apply to transboundary of toxic waste from the US. Lipman also points out that the Basel Convention lacks of clear definition of fundamental terms such as 'hazardous waste' or 'environmentally sound management.' These ambiguous definition may not able to ensure that all the toxic waste transport are banned.

6. Forum and Scope: Basel and multilateral

7. Decision Breadth: 133 countries

8. Legal Standing: Treaty

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: Asia

b. Geographic Site: East Asia

c. Geographic Impact: Philippine

10. Sub-National Factors: No

11. Type of Habitat: Tropical

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure: Import ban

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts: Direct

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: Waste

b. Indirectly Related to Product: No

c. Not Related to Product: No

d. Related to Process: Polluted land

15. Trade Product Identification: Industrial waste and hazardous waste

16. Economic Data

17. Impact of Trade Restriction: High

18. Industry Sector: Waste

19. Exporters and Importers:

Exporters: Japan

Importers: Philippines

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type: Pollution

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species: No

22. Resource Impact and Effect: Product and high

23. Urgency and Lifetime: High and 10-20 years

24. Substitutes: Recycling

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture: No

26. Trans-Boundary Issues: No

27. Rights: Yes

28. Relevant Literature

Basel Convention. ;Guidance Elements For Detection, Prevention And Control Of Illegal Traffic In Hazardous Waste"

Bureau of Export Trade Promotions "Tradeline Philippines"

Donald Macintyre and Hiroko Tashiro. "Japan's Dirty Secret". Time. May 29, 2000. Vol. 156 No. 21.

Environment News Service. "Japan Blamed For Coercing Thai Incinerator Purchases".

Greenpeace: Press Release. "The Japanese Government Tries to Cheat on the Toxic Waste by Burning them, and This Attitude Will Cause A Distrust in The World".

Greenpeace: Press Release "The Japanese Government should ratify the Basel Ban".

Greenpeace: Press Release "The Financial Support From Japan to Thailand for Building Incinerators Will Cause More Import of Waste".

IISD Net: Trade And Investment. "Hazardous Waste Trade: Overview".

International Trade Center, UNCTAD/WTO

Keidanren. "Business as Partners In Development".

Neil Tangri. "[Dioxin-I] R.P. case bares inadequacy of waste rules".

Press Releases, News Stories. "Philippines : Tough Talk on Waste Shipment with Japan".

Rotterdam Convention: Prior Informed Consent. "What is PIC?"

Suvendrini Kakuchi. "Environment-Japan: Throwing Toxic Trash Elsewhere".

Suvendrini Kakuchi. "Environment-Japan: Tokyo Trashed Over Waste Export To Manila".

"Toxic Waste: An Export from the US to Brazil".

Dr. Zada Lipman. "Trade In Hazardous Waste: Environmental Justice Versus Economic Growth".