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

Panyu Residents Victorious in Blocking Planned Incinerator, Expected to Meet 30% Recycling Target in Return

Posted in Community, Politics, Public Health, Urban Planning, Waste Management by ebalkan on December 12, 2009

To some, the surge of public action to oppose a planned incinerator in south China’s Panyu city may indicate growing popular environmental awareness, concern and activism in China. To others, the protests are testament to China’s growing urban wealth and the push for “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) movements that often accompany it.

Whether motivated by property values or public health, recent outcries have not been conducted in vain.

Citizen resistance has succeeded in blocking the government’s construction plans, confirmed when district Party secretary Tan Yinghua said in a meeting with local residents yesterday that the entire project would “start from the beginning.” The government pledged transparency and public engagement throughout all steps of the re-planning process, including the environmental assessment, feasibility study, and location decision, according to a report by state-run Xinhua media.

Both foreign and domestic media outlets credit this outcome to the public push back that began last month.

Having learned of plans to build the incinerator, over 1,000 residents gathered outside the Guangzhou Municipal Government building in late November. There, they shouted slogans and unfurled banners of opposition, and demanded the city’s deputy general secretary to resign. Scenes of the protest were broadcast on local television.

News of the government’s decision to redraw the project entirely marks a public victory and, to some, suggests a widening space for the public’s influence over local government in China.

However, not everyone thinks that the government should be labeled a bogeyman. An article in Nanfang Daily, known for its keen and at times critical reporting despite being a party-run newspaper, argues that though few wish for a waste incinerator, power plants, or other polluting facilities built close to their own home, socio-economic development and people’s livelihoods inevitably rely on them.

As China Environmental Law‘s Charlie McElwee  summarizes “how to resolve this contradiction is a test for the government, but also a test of the wisdom of the people.”

The article goes on to suggest that opposition resulting in movement of the facility to a less developed region where more vulnerable populations reside is analogous to the developed world’s transfer of pollution overseas.

Finally, the author concludes (and yours truly would argue) that responsibility lies with both the government and the people to adopt a coordinated, multi-stakeholder approach for managing waste and addressing pollution problems.

Given the journalist’s well-argued position, it was encouraging to find in yesterday’s news of the government’s concession a tandem commitment to introduce initiatives aimed at reducing source waste and require household sorting.

Beginning next year, the city plans to roll out a garbage classification pilot project, and has set a target recycling rate of 30 percent by 2012. Eventually, sorting will become mandatory and refusal to comply may result in fines.

As someone who would rather see a compost heap in every apartment complex than landfills or incinerators dotting urban perimeters, this program has lots of promising potential, and is a constructive reaction to recent unrest.

As the Nanfang journalist (who is not named in the article) suggests, it only seems natural that enhanced public participation in governance correlate with increased public responsibility.

One unfortunate biproduct of China’s informal waste management sector – which contains a vast network of recyclers who sort and process municipal solid waste – is that it has produced a tenuous connection among most urban residents between consumption and disposal. To many, the task of trash sorting belongs, simply, to “someone else.”

Though the local government’s responsiveness to citizen opposition is, in all regards, a breakthrough event, demanding individuals to do their part to address the problem and endeavoring to raise awareness about trash disposal represents a perhaps more critical step forward for governance in China. I hope more bottom-up efforts are met with well-considered top-down initiatives.


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