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Bridging the Gap: Professor Yabar Mostacero on Waste Management in Japan

Japan News

The hidden goal behind the creation of CICLO Magazine

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Hello CICLO readers! I am back once again, bringing you another new post. First of all, I would like to mention that one of the main purposes for creating CICLO was to be able to bridge the gap between the science community and the general public. This was something I began thinking more deeply about once I started my university studies. For all aspiring scientists, their main goal is to get good results that are valid enough to be published in some of the best scientific journals such as Nature or Cell. But I think what is missing the most is getting this information from these scientific findings out to the general public in a way that is easy, simple and clear to understand. Most of the time, scientist get so wrapped up in their work that they don’t stop to think,

“How can I apply this information to the real world? How could this help society in a positive way? How can I educate people not in my field to understand the basic concepts of my work?”

I think if scientists took more time to think these questions more deeply, then perhaps the most dire information that is lost in translation could capture the attention of much more people outside of the scientific community.

 

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So this is why, today, I would like to introduce to you Professor Helmut Yabar Mostacero from the University of Tsukuba. He has been working in the field of Integrated Resource and Waste Management for almost 20 years. Please continue reading to hear more about what his story is all about!

Finding the connection between science and the real world: CICLO’s interview with Professor Yabar Mostacero from the University of Tsukuba

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Hello, Professor Yabar. It’s so nice to see you again. First of all, I would like to thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. To start off our interview, could you briefly summarize what you are currently researching in your lab here at the University of Tsukuba?

Sure, no problem! Thank you for coming. The core of our work is based on the topic, Integrated Resource and Waste Management. As we know, in addition to health and safety concerns, the design and planning of an integrated resource and waste management system must also be sustainable i.e. environmentally sound, socially acceptable and economically viable. Our laboratory introduces the tools necessary to design integral solid waste management systems. The research we conduct provides specific modeling based on life-cycle thinking towards planning of waste management systems through scenario design. Within this framework, I utilize Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which allows us to estimate the potential environmental impacts associated with a product or process over its life cycle. The LCA goal is to prioritize improvements on product/processes having the least environmental impact. Recently we have begun to use GIS or Geographic Information Systems. GIS is a system that allows us to analyze and manage geographical data. Since the limiting factor of waste management is usually the collection cost, GIS allows us to store and analyze geographical data to optimize the collection system for the waste. GIS can also help us identify the optimal location for waste treatment (such as material recovery facilities, recycling, incineration, composting/bio-gasification facilities, etc) and final disposal facilities through suitability analysis, cluster analysis and network analysis among other GIS processes.  As a complement to Life Cycle AssessmentGIS can help us implement these waste management initiatives in a more practical way.

 

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Wow! Sounds very exciting! So, could you tell me how you got interested in your research topic? How long have you been researching the topic of waste management?

That’s a good question! So I am originally from Peru and around the late 90’s, I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. But during that time in my home country, no one was talking about recycling or environmental issues whatsoever. But I wanted to do something unique and original for my thesis topic. My father used to receive National Geographic magazines, in which one of them I read about composting and organic fertilizers. Then I had this, “Ah, ha!” moment. It hit me that doing something related to this topic might be worth looking into especially since the region around my hometown in Peru had a very strong agricultural foundation, and one was in asparagus cultivation.

So, I decided to visit one of these local asparagus farming and production facilities (my wife used to work as a chemical engineer in one of these facilities) and found that as they cleaned, cut and prepared the asparagus for export to Europe, a lot of residues were left behind. Since these residues contained a lot of water, they smelled really horrible after a couple of days but the production facility staff would just leave it there and forget about it. Moreover, since it was in a part of the city that was not populated, no one complained. I then thought about how I could solve this issue related to asparagus production? So, I came up with the idea to start a composting system for these asparagus residues to complete my thesis project. The production company actually called me to start a pilot study with them but it never went beyond that because as I mentioned, environmental issues or waste management was not a hot topic at that time.

Soon after, I decided to continue my studies in Japan because I was able to get the Monbukagakusho or MEXT Scholarship from the Japanese government. I attended Osaka University to do a Master’s and PhD in Environmental Engineering and then I worked at Osaka University for five years. I eventually came here to the University of Tsukuba to conduct research and education in Resource and Waste Management.

 

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I see! Very interesting story. Thank you for sharing. So can I ask you what are some companies or government sponsored projects that you are currently working on now?

Well, we mostly work with government sponsored projects. I collaborate with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) who bring over working professionals from other countries. We have done a lot of work with these working professional students from places around Asia, America, Africa, Oceania (Fiji, Solomon Islands, etc.). They are usually professional staff from their local government sectors such as theMinistry of Agriculture, Ministry of Environmentor the Ministry of Transport, who come to Japan to do a 2-year Master’s degree in this field and then go back to their home country. In our lab we give them the practical tools and information to help them figure out what kind of environmental regulations are best suitable for their home country, provided all in English. We think of it as a way to promote capacity building of waste management around the world in a fast and efficient way through JICA’s cooperation. I have been doing this project with JICA for the past 5 years and really enjoy it!

 

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Wow, that’s amazing. I am glad you are able to contribute not only to Japan but around the world as well! So the next question is, what are some differences you have seen in terms of waste management in Japan vs. other countries?

In the case of Japan, they began the introduction of the 3R initiatives (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) in 1993. Then in 1995, they started the Containers and Packages Recycling Law and then they moved to other types of recycling systems later on. Since the beginning of these recycling initiatives, most probably due to the way the Japanese society works, the response from the public was really positive and allowed for all of these laws to work well compared to other countries. That is the positive point about waste management in Japan.

On the other hand, municipal solid waste incineration is currently at 78%, which is way too high of a number. Actually, Japan has relied on waste incineration because it is a rapid way to treat huge amounts of waste and hence reduce waste volume and the need for final disposal.  The rapid increase in plastic waste generation from the 80’s was perhaps the main reason for the formation of dioxin during incineration processes. At the time most of the incinerators were of the batch type which produced higher dioxin emissions. The Dioxin Law introduced in 1997 proved to be effective in reducing such dioxin emissions by basically introducing continuous-type incinerators (these replaced the batch types) and innovations for dioxin-trapping technologies. However, now these incinerators need constant amounts of waste to keep running optimally. This situation makes it difficult to increase recycling levels because high amounts of municipal solid waste (especially high calorific waste such as paper and plastic) is needed to allow the incinerators to keep running smoothly. Currently, Japan has now capped out on their recycling levels unless they shift away from incinerating. But I find this a very difficult task because incineration facilities are a huge investment for the Japanese government and there are already so many across Japan.

My idea to solve this problem is that they could do it, if it’s done on a step-by-step basis. First moving from the big cities and then spreading to smaller cities but it’s still a huge challenge that will take us back to the plastic waste problem. Presently, the local city governments and citizens are doing their part to seperate, collect and prepare recyclable products. However, the local governments are not the ones responsible to do the actual recycling (this is actually something that private companies do). So in the past, what they used to do is take part of this plastic waste (mostly PET bottles) to China or other Asian countries for them to recycle. But since a few years ago, plastic has become so cheap and accessible that they don’t need to take in as much plastic as they did before, so they have stopped the import of plastic waste. So now, Japan has overloaded itself with plastic waste that cannot be efficiently recycled in-house. This then leads to a huge gap between the work of the local government and the current capacity of the recycling facilities available. Finally, what is currently happening is that mostly all of the plastic (that used to be sent to Asian countries) is now just being incinerated. But you may be thinking, “But isn’t that counterintuitive?”. I don’t disagree with you there but the Japanese government cannot just say “Stop everything!” to the public because it would break down the societal system related to waste separation already established for many years. I think this is one of Japan’s current waste management challenges that they need to seriously tackle.

 

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Professor, thank you very much for such enticing input. I think most of this information will be new to our readers and will be able to take home some good points after reading this post! I have one final question for you. Could you tell me, what would you like to achieve through your research and what are your future goals?

Well, to be honest when you work in academia, we scientists tend to focus only on the data, the facts and steps towards publishing a paper in a scientific journal. However, if you only bring numbers and data to people in working for the government, this method doesn’t really mean anything to them. When I started utilizing GIS in my laboratory around 3 years ago, I was able to find the importance of practical applications by using maps and simulations based on facts and data, then this is when the government officials started to take more interest in our work. Utilizing GIS is a really helpful tool that has allowed us to use our research information to quickly and effectively get things implemented in a society. Moreover, I am really thankful for all of the wonderful students that have come into my lab via our collaboration with JICA. They give me new perspectives on how we can do our research more practically. So my goal is to continue down this road, meeting more students from different countries and continue to come up with ideas to overcome several waste related environmental challenges in our world today.

 

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Professor Yabar, thank you so much for your time today! Your work is very interesting and inspiring to see! Like you said, when you are a scientist, we tend to get wrapped up in only finding results that will be publishable in a scientific journal and truly forget to connect with the real world. I am really glad that you have found that connection between the scientific world and the real world in order to bring true positive changes within our society. I hope our readers found this interview interesting and again thank you so much for collaborating with CICLO Magazine today!

Thank you as well! Good luck with this great initiative! Looking forward to it!

 

Final words: Interview with Professor Yabar Mostacero

This concludes my interview with Professor Yabar Mostacero from the University of Tsukuba. There was so much more detail that could not make it to this post! But I hope you have learned something new related to waste management in Japan and other countries as well. Thank you for reading until the end and I will see you guys next time!

  1. Howdy! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I truly enjoy reading through your blog posts.
    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same topics?
    Thanks for your time!

  2. Amazing! This blog looks exactly like my old one!

    It’s on a completely different subject but it has pretty much the same layout
    and design. Superb choice of colors!

    • MelisaMelisa

      Thanks for your comment! We tried to make the design as simple and clean as possible! We hope you can continue to enjoy more posts in the future.

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