The problem with rubbish is that there is no good way to get rid of it. Some readers will recall that we wrote an upbeat article in WiC6, that looked at how a host of Chinese cities were aiming to build new garbage incineration plants. These would convert urban waste into electricity.
In principle it sounds good, and the targets were ambitious. Guangzhou – which produces 9,776 tonnes of waste per day – planned to add two new incineration plants, to the one already built. One of these was forecast to be the world’s biggest. The city’s goal: to turn all the city’s waste into energy by 2015.
In the capital city of Beijing – where an incineration plant was completed ahead of the Olympics – the local government calculated that rubbish-powered electricity could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 200,000 tonnes per year.
Adding to the optimism: the fact that many of these plants would be primed with a domestic technology pioneered in the city of Chongqing. Not only was this ticking the eco boxes; it was a decent business opportunity.
However, it turns out that the news is not all good. That’s because in spite of all the hopes for “recycled” energy, local residents hate the incineration facilities. A report in the Southern Weekly recounts that many of the plants are built only a few hundred metres from residential areas, and are strongly opposed by locals. The newspaper says that residents fear the by-product of the plants: carcinogen dioxins.
The dioxin produced by incineration – and which can spread through the air – is classified by the International Cancer Research Centre as a first level carcinogen. Zhao Zhangyuan, an expert with the Environmental Science Branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the newspaper that the dioxin is highly toxic and will “ultimately cause cancer”. And because the dioxin does not degrade for a long time (anywhere between 14 and 273 years) stringent measures need to be applied to contain it.
Therein lies the rub. Zhao reckons, “China’s current situation in regard to environmental protection and management cannot achieve these conditions.” He goes further. “I once believed that it was feasible to operate an incineration plant if it was located far from residential areas.” Now he doesn’t even think that is good idea.
A representative of Beijing’s Municipal Management Committee has insisted that dioxin levels are being kept to standards that will do people no harm, but the public is not convinced. And in March, the Ministry of Environmental Protection heeded public opposition and delayed the construction of Beijing’s Liutun Refuse Incineration Plant. The ministry said the project’s merits needed to be “further argued” and it “shall not be started without approval”.
China’s cities face some difficult choices. The alternative to incinerating rubbish is to dump it in landfills. But these too have problems. The waste creates methane gas, which is prone to catch fire. Something similar happened recently in Lanzhou where a dump spontaneously combusted. It took firefighters 52 days to extinguish the fire.
Fires aside, there is another critical problem: lack of space. Beijing’s city government has announced that at the current rate it will have filled its 13 landfills by 2013.
So it faces a “garbage crisis”. “Beijing’s landfills are running on overload,” says Chen Yong, the director of the Beijing Municipal Management Committee. “In four to five years there will be nowhere to fill the refuse. Therefore, the construction of incineration plants is necessary for us.”
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