Waste not, want not

China’s powerful new approach to trash

Waste not, want not

You can power a thousand lightbulbs with this lot...

Discussions of China’s ‘rubbish’ are normally the domain of indignant American politicians complaining about the nation’s unsafe products – such as poisonous dogfood and toys coated in toxic paint.

But this article is genuinely about rubbish of the disposable variety and should be welcomed by even the flintiest Southern Republican. That’s because the Chinese have got serious about turning their garbage into energy – a process that should have benefits for the environment.

“We will start in the first half of the year,” says the bureau chief of Guangzhou’s environment and sanitation department. Lu Zhiyi is talking about his city’s ambitious target to turn all of the city’s waste into energy by 2015.

The southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou produces 9,776 tonnes of waste per day. The current disposal technique is landfill. The city already has one incineration plant; but the second will be able to process 2,000 tonnes daily. According to the website of the Yancheng Evening News Group, a third plant is planned with a capacity of 4,000 tonnes a day. Upon completion this will be the world’s largest garbage incineration power plant.

Guangzhou is not the only city that is obsessed with rubbish. The China Investment Advisory Network reckons that by 2020 the country will be able to generate 3.3 million kilowatts of power from its trash.

Shanghai is currently constructing the world’s third largest plant, with a daily incineration capacity of 3,000 tonnes – which the Shanghai Morning News reports generates enough electricity to light four million households per day. The power plant is a joint venture between Shanghai Environment Investment and American Golden State Holding Group.

The city of Beijing meanwhile views itself at the vanguard of the trend. It completed an incineration plant ahead of last year’s Olympics in its Chaoyang district, which converts the throwaway of more than two million people into energy. Beijing’s city government reckons the power plant saves the burning of 70,000 tonnes of coal. The byproduct of the process – slag – makes up 20% of the total weight of the garbage, and is then converted itself, into bricks for the city’s roads and protective levees.

The plants were first mooted in the central government’s eleventh five year plan. China looked to the experience of Germany and France – which took the lead in this field in the 1970s – and more recently the US and Japan.

How does the process work? First the garbage has to be collected and classified. High-temperature incineration is applied to garbage with a higher combustion value. The heat energy generated becomes a high-temperature steam which pushes turbines, and makes electricity. For organic matter which is not directly combustible both fermentation and anaerobic treatments are carried out. After drying and desulfurization this produces methane, which can be burned. The end result again is electricity.

No one is pretending this is cheap. Preferential tax policies and subsidies are required. But the environmental benefits are considerable. Beijing, for example, estimates its rubbish-powered electricity plant will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 200,000 tonnes per year.

And once again, it creates a new industry for China to exploit. The Chongqing Morning Post reports that a locally-developed technology will be used in many future plants across the country, as the central government has said that the technology used by Chongqing Tongxing Garbage Incineration Plant will become the national standard from June 1. The domestic technology will also be implemented in neighbouring Chengdu, with plant construction set to begin this month. Contracts have also been signed in Baoding and Hebei.

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