Osaka, 11 March 2014 - In 1960s Japan, vast amounts of industrial and hazardous wastes, illegal dumping, air pollution and water contamination resulted in environmental and public health crises. One well known example of this was the mercury contamination in the city of Minamata, where large numbers of people became seriously ill after eating contaminated seafood from Minamata Bay.
Much has changed since then. Today, Japanese cities such as Kawasaki and Kitakyushu, once heavily polluted by industry, now enjoy better air quality and suffer less pollution. Minamata has remodelled itself as an eco-city, receiving international recognition for its wide range of recycling and environmental programmes.
Now, for the first time, Japan's experiences and lessons learned in overcoming industrial waste challenges have been documented in a comprehensive report, which was launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) today.
The report, The Japanese industrial waste experience: Lessons for rapidly industrializing countries, analyzes the Japanese case and highlights the potential relevance of the country's experience for sustainable development in rapidly industrializing countries. It finds that some of the approaches applied in Japan have already been echoed around the world.
It provides concrete examples - from both national and local governments, as well as the private sector - of how the industrial waste challenge was tackled in Japan, giving an insight into the historical developments and processes that led to dealing with industrial waste in a more sustainable way.
The country's experience shows that a mix of policies and initiatives helped it turn challenges into opportunities.
Regulations to hold waste generators responsible, voluntary measures for industries, market-based instruments to subsidize city-level action, and awareness-raising programmes were all part of the mix that helped change attitudes and practices in industrial waste management.
The main lesson learned in dealing with industrial waste can be drawn from the shift from end-of-pipe focused policies to preventive approaches and the introduction of the concept of reducing, reusing and recycling (3Rs).
As the Japanese experience shows, the measures needed to recover from pollution include not only environmental recovery, but also medical care and compensation for harm inflicted on people's health.
In light of the highly diversified types of industrial waste, Japan devised policies to hold industries responsible for waste treatment and disposal. Putting the private sector in charge of waste treatment and disposal has, over the years, created an established market and fostered waste businesses.
Another major lesson from Japan's experience has been that stimulating stakeholder involvement and raising environmental awareness is critical.
Market-based instruments have facilitated action by local communities to create integrated industrial waste management approaches at the city-level under the so-called eco-towns project, a government programme that was initiated in 1997.
By sharing Japan's experiences and lessons learned, the report aims to expand the policy options available to decision-makers in rapidly industrializing countries. Indeed, with many developing countries currently experiencing rapid industrial growth, finding solutions to industrial waste challenges is critical.
Moreover, with a unique insight into the history of other nations, today's developing countries now have an unparalleled opportunity to leapfrog unsustainable paths of industrial development, and in so doing, to provide models that other countries can follow.