No More Garbage Island: How a Japanese Community Triumphed Over a Toxic Waste Landfill | Japan
Joru Ishii remembers when shredded car tires, batteries and runoff the color and consistency of molasses ravaged the landscape of Teshima, his home island in Japan’s Inland Sea. These sites are now confined to a museum, as a reminder of how environmental destruction can unfold in plain sight and how ordinary people can fight back.
For several years, nearly a million tons of industrial waste were illegally dumped on the western tip of Teshima, the worst such case in the country’s history.
The ever-expanding mountain of trash has earned Teshima the nickname “garbage island.” Its residents wore masks as the waste was burned, sending plumes of acrid smoke into the air. Many complained of sore eyes and some had symptoms associated with asthma. Local fishing and agriculture industries have suffered as consumers shun Teshima’s fruits and seafood.
Nearly 30 years after locals began their campaign to fight responsible business and their political enablers, the multi-billion yen operation to restore the island to its former state is coming to an end.
Work has started to remove the steel panels that were preventing toxic water from seeping into the sea, and by March next year authorities are expected to approve the cleanup, just as public funds run out. dry up.
Today, Teshima produces strawberries and olive oil, and is as well known for its art museum, bicycle-friendly roads, and inclusion in the Setouchi Triennale art festival as it is for its pivotal role in the worst case of illegal dumping of industrial waste in Japan.
As they celebrate the end of a campaign, the islanders act to protect the legacy of their once-notorious home – both as a cautionary tale against corporate greed and as an example of the power of civic activism.
“The impetus came from the local people,” says Ishii, a former anti-dumping campaign worker who now shares his knowledge of the island’s troubled history with visitors. “They funded their own campaign, which meant they could speak freely.”
In 1975, the misleadingly-named Teshima Comprehensive Tourism Development Company obtained approval from Tadao Maekawa, then governor of Kagawa Prefecture – where Teshima is located – to import industrial waste onto the island in defiance of the wishes of the locals. islanders.
In addition to paper pulp, food waste and wood chips, Teshima Tourism has started illegally dumping huge amounts of industrial waste – shredded car parts, oil, PCBs and other toxic materials – the all with the consent of the prefectural government. As the amount of waste increased, the runoff began to seep into the sea and Teshima’s reputation as a dumping site was sealed.
When residents complained, Maekawa accused them of being “selfish”. Undeterred, they marched on parliament and organized thousands of meetings and events. A group of activists have been sitting outside prefectural government offices every day for six months, handing out flyers demanding action against Teshima Tourism and its unrepentant chairman, Sosuke Matsuura.
In 1990, local police inspected the island, revoked the company’s license to operate, and arrested Matsuura, who was given a symbolic fine and a short suspended prison sentence. The investigation, however, had attracted media interest. Sympathetic politicians visited the island and environmental groups, spurred on by successful air pollution campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, turned to the dangers of industrial waste.
“The attitude in Japan at the time was that pollution like this shouldn’t be cleaned up, just buried and hidden from view,” says Ishii.
A remarkable success
In 2000, the residents reached an agreement with the prefectural government to clean up the waste. Over the next two decades, 913,000 tons were removed and shipped to the neighboring island of Naoshima for processing and incineration. Work to remove the steel panels began after officials said levels of benzene and other toxic chemicals were within national safety standards.
“They ruined the environment and risked people’s health just to make money,” says Ishii, who turned Matsuura’s former office into a museum dedicated to one of Japan’s most successful environmental movements. .
Exhibits include a wall of shredded waste, photographs of protests and a banner that reads: ‘Give us back our island!’ The names of the heads of the 549 households that took part in the campaign cover a wall, with black rosettes pinned next to the 80% who died. “Every household demanded action,” Ishii says. “But they understood how slowly things are done in Japan. Few of them thought they would live long enough to see the end of the cleanup.
The Teshima incident led to the “transformation of Japan’s waste administration”, according to Ayako Sekine of Greenpeace Japan, prompting substantial revisions to waste disposal laws, stricter regulations on waste disposal facilities, waste disposal and higher fines for illegal dumping.
“It’s ultimately up to the people of Teshima to decide what happens next,” Sekine adds. “We expect the abundant biodiversity to be restored in Teshima and the Seto Inland Sea.”
Kiyoteru Tsutsui, a sociology professor at Stanford University, says the Teshima campaign inspired similar movements in other parts of Japan at a time when the country was just beginning to appreciate the dangers of industrial waste.
“I’m not saying everything is perfect in Teshima now, but it’s been a remarkable success considering all the damage that’s been done and the collusion between those in power there,” Tsutsui said.
With a population of just 760, more than half of whom are over the age of 65, today’s Teshima faces new challenges. But there is quiet optimism that its natural beauty and involvement in modern art projects will revive a tourism industry that has all but disappeared during the coronavirus pandemic.
As thoughts turn to the future, Ishii, a former farmer, remembers the unlikely band of eco-warriors whose fight is coming to an end. “This,” he said, staring at the now empty dumpsite and the pristine ocean beyond, “is their legacy.”