The After Shock

15 Apr 2011

Climatic, geological, or anthropogenic natural disasters produce in a couple of seconds, hours or days, enormous amounts of waste, so much so that authorities are unable to handle the quantity with ordinary means. The rupture of “lifelines”, namely water, electricity, transportation routes and communication lines, send survivors into a deep confusion. The accumulation of rubble and waste increases the shock of the populations and postpones the first steps towards the return to normalcy.

The 3 million tonnes of rubble generated by the earthquake in Los Angeles in January 1994 led the city to reinforce and multiply its recycling capacities. Provisional transit and elimination sites for future earthquakes were pre-selected.

The Kobé earthquake in January 1995 generated 18 million tonnes of rubble. Some 2 million tonnes of wood was recovered. A portion of the 11 million tonnes of recuperated concrete was used to fill in the embankment of the Osaka Bay.

In August 1999, the Marmara earthquake in Turkey generated between 13 and 18 million tonnes of waste. In the aftermath, the government recommended in anticipation of similar events to designate areas of transit and storage of waste and the organization of recycling channels. Similar provisions were used following Hurricane Katrina. In France, the Ministry of Ecology is looking at carrying out similar actions and is urging regional communities to include post-disaster plans in waste management.

In New York, the events of September 11th 2001 caused 1.2 million tonnes of demolition waste, more than one average year of demolition waste produced by the state.
At the end of August 2005, Katrina caused 90 million tonnes of waste in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

On the island of Sumatra, after 3 years of waste collection following the December 2004 tsunami, 1 million m3 of demolition waste and 90,000 tonnes of household waste were piled-up in landfills. Around 17,000 tonnes of wood were recycled as furniture and building frameworks. The waste was collected by hand and wheelbarrows. Only one factory, a cement works, was partially damaged.

Following the earthquake and tsunami which hit the Northeast of Japan the context is completely different. The richer a country is, the more diversified, mixed and toxic the waste would be. In terms of industries, coal and fuel power plants, agricultural transformation and food industries, fuel storage, warehouses, harbours, shipyards, hydroponic farms, fish farms, water-treatment plants were destroyed. The earthquake opened up tanks and containers, the tsunami spread inland and out to sea pollutants such as hydrocarbons, PCBs, pesticides, paints, medication and other toxic waste.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCDE), in an average year Japan produces around 60 million tonnes of demolition waste. Today, the cataclysm that hit the northeast of the country will saturate existing networks even more so that rubble used to extend land out to sea or to create artificial islands will clearly be slowed down for security reasons, for the protection of the population and industrial installations. The “Construction Material Recycling Act” put in place in May 2000 requires the Japanese building and civil engineering works to sort out and to recycle demolition waste. Under the current circumstances it is unlikely that this requirement be respected. Already, of the 2,670 illegal dumps listed in Japan 70% originate from demolition and construction waste.

Another critical issue is computers, air conditioners, washing machines and refrigerators all dealt with under the “Electric Household Appliance Recycling Law” of 2001. This law makes it mandatory to collect and recycle obsolete electrical appliances. One can reasonably evaluate that the 73,000 destroyed buildings and that the destroyed fishing fleet generated around 1 to 2 million discarded appliances. In France the eco-organism dealing with electric and electronic equipment waste should conforming to their official guidelines be responsible for the collection and elimination of electrical waste after natural disasters. However this no longer applies if the electrical waste is contaminated by other polluting substances such as hydrocarbons or radionuclides.

If one considers the scenario that plastic waste, defunct vehicles and other metals are regrouped, Japan will have difficulties exporting them as it usually does towards China, South Korea and Taiwan because of strong suspicions of contamination by radioactive dust. To use an example, the export to Asia of 125,000 tonnes of metal frameworks extracted from the rubble of the World Trade Center sparked controversy because of the risk of asbestos dust contamination.

Japan is left on its own to fight waste. Labour and waste deposit sites are lacking. Authorised landfills are almost full and the numerous incinerators are far from respecting current standards. Today the absence of a waste management plan such as the “Tsunami Recovery Waste Management” on the island of Sumatra or the “Hurricane Katrina Debris Management Plan” in the United States does not contribute to a positive image of the Japanese government. Affecting not only the seismic aspects, but also the humanitarian, nuclear, sanitary and economic fronts, Japan is paralysed and is wavering between inertia and omission.

Unofficial initiatives such as open air burning of waste, which was already carried out following Kobé, and other illegal and dangerous ways of eliminating waste both for public health and for the environment could be put in place. This “eco-business”, a common trend following disasters and waste management in Japan, is not a world standard in transparency or compliance with international conventions.

Dedicated web-page to post-disaster file (in French only)

« Du Rare à l’infini. Panorama mondial des déchets » Philippe Chalmin. Catherine Gaillochet.
Published by Editions Economica, 2009.


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