A burning issue

No more incinerators, protests propertied middle class

A burning issue

“Not in my backyard...”

In China, getting a big project approved can be a murky process. And that’s hardly inspiring for residents who live nearby – especially when that project involves burning garbage. Twice last week, hundreds of residents marched through the southern city of Guangzhou in protest at planned waste incinerators, worried about pollution in their neighbourhoods.

Since we wrote about refuse disposal last July, cases of opposition to waste incinerator projects have intensified. These campiagns are increasingly involving middle-class professionals and housewives. At concern: risks to health – and to property values.

Some of the campaigns have been successful. In December, officials in Guangzhou’s Panyu district agreed to shelve proposals for a new incinerator for at least three years. “We will reassess all our garbage treatment plans,” promised local Party Secretary Tan Yinghua, “all decisions will be made only after thorough discussion with residents.”

But Panyu is still something of an exception. Over 60 waste incinerators have already been installed, and the government remains committed to the controversial technology. Last week, Beijing Mayor Guo Jinlong vowed to “push forward” on the city’s current waste incineration projects, in spite of opposition from homeowners.

Officials say that they have little choice as landfills can’t cope with the record amounts of waste now being created. A “garbage crisis” is imminent. They argue too that incinerators can generate electricity (see WiC5) and that advances in technology make them “pollution-free”.

Families living near proposed plants aren’t convinced. “We have collected a great deal of information about waste-to-energy plants on the internet,” explains Guangzhou resident Zhao Hui, “They are still heavily-polluting and have been abandoned in many countries.”

The protestors’ biggest concern is the chemical dioxin (see WiC 22), a highly toxic gas that can cause cancer. Heavy metals and another carcinogenic gases can also be released by incineration.

China’s national standard for dioxin emission (1 nanogram per cubic metre) is already 10 times higher than in the US and the European Union.

Modern incinerators use filters to trap airborne particles, “acid-scrubbers” to remove chemical run-offs and heavy metals, and high temperatures to break down dioxins and other gases.

But local citizens still don’t want trash being burned next door.

“Residents don’t believe pollution will be minimised,” say Feng Shengping, the author of a recent survey on incinerators for the Guangdong Situation Study and Research Center. Chinese Academy of Sciences environmental science expert Zhao Zhangyuan agrees, arguing that some of the claims about “zero-pollution” incinerators are overblown. “Burning garbage produces many poisonous gases even when the most advanced technology is used,” he told the New Daily Express.

Reports of a cancer cluster among residents near Guangzhou’s Likeng Incineration Power Plant also seem to confirm the protesters’ fears.

The plant is operated by French water giant Veolia Environment. In nearby Yongxing village there have been 72 reported cancer cases since the plant opened in 2005. “I’m really worried my baby will get sick,” says nearby resident Zhang Xiemei, “we can smell the thick stench of burning trash, and it is getting stronger every day.”An explosion at the plant last month that injured five employees also renewed concerns over how incineration plants are operated.

Experts say a long-term solution to the garbage issue has to involve less waste and more recycling. “Reducing the amount of trash from each household, separating and recycling are still key,” says Guangming Daily’s science reporter Feng Yongfeng.

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