New Energy and Environment Digest 新能源与环保参考

Government, Backed into a Corner on Public Incinerator Concerns, Pushes Back

Posted in Recycling, Regulations, Waste Management by ebalkan on November 12, 2009

incinerator emissions dioxin beijing municipal solid waste MSW co2 global warming trash waste to energy activism protest community cities

Beijing municipal officials recently announced plans to continue with seven incinerator projects in the Beijing area, despite protests of nearby residents.

As we have reported before, Beijing’s trash is growing at approximately 8% annually, though the city is capable of treating just over half of what it tosses. Currently, 90% of Beijing’s solid municipal waste is sent to area landfills.

Though source waste reduction, improved recycling programs and more active resident seperation are among the many options available for addressing the problem, local and central level officials have prioritized the building of more incineration plants as their preferred approach.

This stance, combined with a lack of regulatory oversight and monitoring necessary to ensure the plants’ safety and environmental standards, has stirred dissatisfaction among local residents, and prompted vocal protests unseen in years past.

Incinerators – Clean or Dirty? Friend or Foe?

The thought of burning trash hardly seems ecological or pleasant to the nose, and expert opinions vary as to whether they are part of a sustainable path of development.

That said, advanced facilities are capable of meeting even the most stringent emissions standards; contribute little apparent smell to the community in which they are located; and can even produce energy as a biproduct, making the plant a net negative energy consumer.

Plus, incinerators contribute to the mitigation of landfill methane gas, which has a global warming potential 25 times that of CO2.

Among the list of countries with advanced facilities in operation – which includes Austria, The Netherlands, Japan and France – is China. However, most facilities in China are not among the latest and greatest.

In Shenzhen, for example, though the Baoan incinerator produces almost no dioxin – the carcinogenic emission that often gives incinerators a bad name – it also costs ten times what incinerators across town cost to operate. Other, operationally cheaper plants, by contrast, can be smelled from a mile away and seen belching dark plumes of smoke into the air.

The topic at hand is not why have not China’s municipalities not set strict standards to mandate cleaner incinerators. Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have passed standards comparable with those in Europe. However, lacking enforcement and monitoring of operation in China has resulted in poorly performing incineration plants even in cities which have enacted strict local regulations.

Moreover, national standards permit dioxin levels ten times those permitted in the US by the Environmental Protection Agency. Foreign engineering firms cite China’s pollution-permissive legal framwork as their reason for not being more responsive to a surging demand for building incineration plants in China.

These factors combined have resulted in incineration plants which, in addition to posing an environmental threat, have also bred public distrust and resentment.

Public Outcry Becoming More Prevalent

As recently as a few years back, environmental justice was not something with which ordinary citizens normally got involved.

Whether because of higher income levels, property value concern, raised awareness, an amalgamation of these elements or something else altogether, China’s citizenry has become more vocal on environmental issues affecting local communities. Growing activism is especially apparent on the issue of incineration plants.

In the past two years, protests over planned incineration plants have broken out in major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Panyu. (in Guangdong Province). Each of these cities’ protests resulted in planned projects being halted or altogether abandoned. In Xiamen, rally cries against a planned chemical plant overturned the project.

Government, Backed Into a Corner, Pushes Back

Despite a measure of recent success of citizens in defeating incineration plant construction and expansion, the mechanism for democratic governance is far from fully developed in China. Though local governments can no longer ignore public sentiment completely, they have not demonstrated a willingness to redraw waste management initiatives.

Just last week, Beijing government officials announced intentions to continue with seven planned incineration plants, slated to be built in the city’s residential neighborhoods, as part of a plan to build nine incineration plants in the Beijing by 2015.

The announcement came in spite of renewed concerns over incineration plants in the last few months.

Chen Ling, vice-director of the Beijing municipal commission of administration, was quick to address community concerns by avowing that the plants would not pose a health risk.

But a marred track record to date may speak louder than Chen’s promises.

Beijing’s one existing incinerator plant, built in 2002, was found in 2008 to be burning, on a daily basis, four times its designed capacity, and pumping 40% of its methane emissions in to the air, rather than capturing them for energy.

Beijing’s latest act demonstrates that though a corner has not been fully turned in terms of government responsiveness to public sentiment, it can neither act unilaterally, particularly on issues that affect daily quality of life. If the last few years’ of growing activism are any indication of what is to come, it would seem that the recent announcement is not the final word.

If you like what you see here, check out TALKING TRASH: Beijing.

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