MELISSA BLOCK, host:
To the disaster zone in Japan now where last month's devastating earthquake and tsunami have left that country with, among things, a massive trash problem. In many places up and down the coast, nothing remains but mud and debris.
NPR's Yuki Noguchi traveled in and around the seaside city of Kesennuma and sent this report.
(Soundbite of bulldozers)
YUKI NOGUCHI: Here on the outskirts of Kesennuma, what was once a baseball ground and park has now been turned into at least two football fields' worth of garbage, piled 15 feet high. Bulldozers are going through it all. There's aluminum siding, school desks, bits of carpet. And the stench can be smelled from blocks away - it smells a little bit like rotting fish.
This is but a tiny fraction of Japan's tsunami-related debris. The disasters made junkyards of entire cities and created the equivalent of 16 years' worth of waste.
Kazuyuki Akaishi is an expert at the Japan Research Institute consultancy.
Mr. KAZUYUKI AKAISHI (Expert, Japan Research Institute): (Speaking Japanese)
NOGUCHI: There is a need for critical infrastructure, of course. But Akaishi says trash is the next big obstacle to recovery. The debris is heavy with sea water. It also contains an unknown amount of asbestos and radioactive waste, which could be far more dangerous, complicated and, therefore, more costly to clean up. And then there's the issue of geography.
Mr. AKAISHI: (Speaking Japanese)
NOGUCHI: The hard-hit northeast of Japan is mostly mountains and coastline, with little flat land in between to sort and stow trash. Plus, Japan has almost no landfill space left. What it can't recycle or burn, it may have to ship overseas.
Last week, the Japanese cabinet approved some emergency spending for cleanup but they're not providing specific plans. The Ministry of Environment declined an interview for this story. Local governments, meanwhile, are coordinating cleanup. But they're still reeling from the tsunami that wiped out some of their offices and killed many of their workers. In the meantime, many residents are taking matters into their own hands.
(Soundbite of hammering)
NOGUCHI: Takuya Murakami and a handful of others are running a grassroots volunteer operation out of a pachinko parlor parking lot in Kesennuma. In addition to making soup and delivering supplies to evacuees, he says they've also been clearing their neighborhood roads.
Mr. TAKUYA MURAKAMI: (Through translator) It was supposed to be cleared, but a month passed and we were totally ignored. So we decided it would probably just be faster if we did it ourselves.
NOGUCHI: Volunteers have also started a fire in a rusted oil drum and keep feeding it with cardboard pieces and bits of broken lumber, hoping to burn away some of the problem.
Michinori Watanabe is this volunteer corps' ringleader.
Mr. MICHINORI WATANABE: (Speaking Japanese)
NOGUCHI: Pointing to the spot where he's standing, he says this place had been a mountain of trash. We couldn't even move our cars. If you really want to help us, he says, take a piece of trash home with you.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Kesennuma, Japan.