The Dirty Truth About China’s Incinerators

A heated debate burns around the topic of waste incineration, the flames of which are stoked when the practice turns mountains of trash into usable energy through a toxic transformation. An article from China Dialogue outlines the practice and politics of garbage-incineration and the use of waste-to-energy technology in China, and how it will continue through the 12th five-year-plan:

Most of China’s garbage meets with one of three fates: around half is placed in landfill, 12% is burned and a little under 10% used for fertiliser. The rest is mostly left untreated, much of it simply dumped. However, plants that burn waste – and in the process generate electricity –are on their way to playing a significant role in the disposal of Chinese refuse.

[…]China is set to increase its daily waste-processing capacity by 400,000 tonnes over that five-year period, said Shi. New investment of 140 billion yuan (US$22 billion) will be pumped into the sector, bringing total spending on waste-disposal to 260 billion yuan (US$41 billion).

[…]Evidently, China is gearing up for a Great Leap Forward in garbage incineration.

The path China has chosen will not be smooth. Local governments find themselves squeezed between mountains of rubbish piled around their cities on one side, and residents’ objections to incinerators on the other.

Xie Yong was the plaintiff in China’s first health-related lawsuit against a waste-to-energy incinerator. While pregnant with their son Yongkang, Xie and his wife lived very close to an incinerator. After his birth, doctors diagnosed Yongkang with cerebral palsy, and determined environmental factors to be the cause. Thus began Xie’s long climb up China’s legal hierarchy. A brief from the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (污染受害者法律帮助中心), a Chinese NGO, provides details of the case from inside the local courtroom after introducing the Xie family, their situation, and their neighborhood incinerator:

The Hai’an incinerator began test operating in June, 2006, and at the time it was the only incinerator in the vicinity of Nantong city. A total of $4,360,000 was invested in the project, which incinerated over 100 tons of garbage per day. It was owned by Saite Environmental Protection Enterprises Co., Ltd. of Hai’an county (later Tianying Saite Environmentally Friendly Energy Group of Jiangsu province).

Xie Yong calculated roughly that at all times during his wife’s pregnancy, the incinerator was in operation and at a distance of only 190 meters. He read many books related to both medicine and the environment and spoke with experts, and learned that the pollutants that can be generated by a garbage incinerator, especially carcinogenic dioxin, lead to pediatric illnesses with symptoms extremely similar to those of Xie Yongkang.

Thereafter, Xie Yong brought Xie Yongkang back to the Shanghai Xinhua Hospital. The hospital issued a report concluding that Xie Yongkang’s hereditary factors were normal, which meant that his illness was caused by non-hereditary factors.

The Guardian published an article telling of Xie Yong’s ongoing climb up the rungs of China’s legal system. The piece also outlines China’s “incineration boom”, and exposes the greenwashing rhetoric that stimulates waste-to-energy policies in China:

The ongoing justification for favourable waste-to-energy policies in China is simple: cities stem the problem of growing waste while getting much needed electricity in the process. That formula, however appealing, appears too good to be true.

China’s incinerators, though canonised as a “clean energy,” have a dirty underside. Thermal waste treatment plants are subject to emissions regulations considerably looser than those for power plants. Legally, they can emit nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide at, respectively, four and five times the levels of power plants in China.

Newer facilities are installed with air-pollution control systems, but these are costly to use and maintain. Thus, many plants operate without the required flue gas filtering equipment. Likewise, treatment of other highly toxic byproducts – such as wastewater removed before incineration and fly ash created during burning – tends to be either poor or non-existent. This follows partly from the lack of regulations on how waste-to-energy plants should treat wastewater.

Just as polymath blogger Han Han did with his comments on the recent environmental protests turned violent-crackdown in Shifang, The Guardian article ends nodding to the potential of  grassroots mobilization for securing a safe environment. A New York Times article reporting on the success of the Shifang protesters provides two examples of local action against incinerators:

“The standards for environmental protection are higher and higher, from the public and also from the government,” said Zhao Zhangyuan, a retired environmental protection official who has successfully campaigned for the last several years to block the construction of a large trash incinerator in a prosperous Beijing neighborhood.

[…]Last month, about 1,000 people protested to block a trash incinerator in Songjiang, near Shanghai, with no decision yet announced there on whether it will proceed. […]

Also see news of a 2009 protest in Panyu, Guangdong against the proposed construction of an incinerator, via CDT. For more on China’s environment and local mobilization to protect it, see prior CDT coverage.