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Japan tackles mountains of trash left in tsunami's wake

Japanese cities leveled by the March tsunami are now left with more trash than they would normally dispose of in a century. Recycling it all is a daunting task.

Cars destroyed by the March 11 tsunami are stacked in piles near the port city of Sendai, Japan. A century’s worth of trash was generated in 45 minutes, one official estimates.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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When the tsunami that hit north­eastern Japan on March 11 was sucked back out to sea, it left more than shattered lives and businesses in its catastrophic wake.

In this port city, a hub of the local fishing industry, it also left more trash and debris than the city would normally have to dispose of in 100 years. Despite the daunting task ahead, the country is committed to recycling it all.

Four months after the disaster, most of that 6 million tons of debris is still uncleared. Upturned cars lie by the roadside; abandoned houses sag on uncertain foundations; piles of timber and masonry await collection.

"When you get a century's worth of waste all at once, cleaning up is a marathon task," says Tomofumi Miura, an official in the city government's trash-disposal department. "It will take us at least a year just to collect it all."

Cities up and down the coast face similar challenges. The Environment Ministry estimates that the earthquake and tsunami created nearly 25 million tons of debris.

And the mess is more than just a massive eyesore.

"The problem is that people cannot even start to rebuild because of the huge amount of trash," points out Tomoki Kagawa, a researcher with the National Federation of Industrial Waste Management Associations.

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