11 Nov 2011

Recycling Japan’s tsunami-hit towns

Chief Correspondent

Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson returns to Japan’s tsunami-hit towns to witness the world’s largest recycling operation.

It is municipal recycling on a monumental scale. Next time you down to the council recycling skips with the defunct toaster and half an old rose-bush, you might want to consider this.

Along a stretch of coast that would comfortably run from London to Edinburgh, heap after heap after tangled heap of debris scooped up from the towns and villages which died here in the tsunami eight months ago.

Now it’s not just being collected but sorted. Only in Japan. So you’ll see football-pitch sized areas simply covered in car tyres. Cars themselves stacked up across several football-pitch sized holding areas. A stack of domestic white goods fifty feet high and a couple of hundred yards wide.

And near any sizeable town, vast tangled piles of wood, plastic and dusty indeterminate detritus for which the only option is to be covered in landfill soil then left, with weird black venting pipes allowing the steamy gases of decomposition to escape.

If you come back next summer we shall still be doing it. Takashi Konno

‘It is a long job’

In Kesennuma we went to the town-hall, currently re-sited in an old school.

Upstairs in a Dickensian office overflowing with files and paper in the age of computers, the strangely serene Takashi Konno is hard at work supervising all this.

“We’ve never experienced anything like this. The scale of the tsunami was like nothing we had ever gone through. I’ve just never seen this amount of rubble,” he said.

Mr Konno reaches for a sheaf of papers with the requisite stats.

“We have,” he scans calmly along the paper, “already removed over one million tonnes of debris and the job is seventy per cent complete. That said, if you come back next summer we shall still be doing it. It is a long job.”

Check out the Channel 4 News interactive map, charting our return to the tsunami zone

So long, in fact, that in some areas there is still plenty of work to do for foreign volunteers who have arrived since the disaster to help out wherever needed. In Ishinomaki – where more people were killed than in any other town, around 4000 – we find Londoner Jamie El-Banna.

Along with friends from Australia, Canada, Scotland, Latvia, France and of course Japan, they are clearing out roadside culverts clogged with debris. It seems at first a tiny, almost puny effort against the scale of what’s needed. But you soon appreciate that some jobs don’t lend themselves easily to the large scale diggers rumbling away all around us.

“Trouble is,” he says, not pausing from the digging,” the bureaucracy here can be very slow and so many people are in limbo – unsure where to go to or whether to move or not.”

And limbo really is the word for what is happening in many places.

The recycling of towns is impressive – but what of those towns now? The future? Rebuilding? Many questions but few real answers.