Stand-off over waste incineration in Beijing

A heated debate in the Chinese capital exposed the social impacts of waste management decisions. Xie Yanmei reports.

Last August, dozens of cars filed out of a gated housing compound in a northern Beijing suburb and paraded through the surrounding streets. Slogans plastered on the vehicles read: “Resolutely oppose garbage incineration.” Just a few days before, the protesters found out that the government had decided to build a waste-to-power plant at A Su Wei three kilometres west of their homes.

Both sides of the debate over China’s rubbish incinerators – discussed previously on chinadialogue by Ma Jun (see “Solving the incinerator uproar”) – agree that sorting and waste reduction have to feature much more prominently in garbage management, but many questions remain. Slashing the creation of waste is a goal that everyone can applaud. After that, the agreement breaks down. Some argue that thorough sorting and recycling can turn most trash into resources. Others say that the majority is unusable rubbish, and that burning waste for electricity is the best way to reduce the amount of solid waste.

Wei Panming, deputy director in charge of Beijing’s cityscape, said that the city’s garbage output will stop growing by 2015. The districts that exceed growth limits will see their waste-processing fees soar. “You can pay if you are rich,” he said, “or you can reduce the amount of your waste.” Beijing will build more waste-fired power plants, Wei added, and the city will do everything “to maximally protect the interests of neighboring residents.”

However, some city dwellers, such as those near A Su Wei, are not convinced. In addition to public demonstrations, the residents compiled a well-researched report arguing against garbage incineration and sent it to government officials and reporters. “We want to defeat incineration on the policy level,” said Bai Fuqin, a chief organiser of the protest, who asked to use an alias.

Burning trash out in the open or in small furnaces is a practice with a long history in China. In 1985, the southern city of Shenzhen built the country’s first garbage incinerator that converts the heat into electricity. Since then, the government implemented a series of policies, including tax credits and subsidies, to encourage waste-to-power projects. By the end of 2008, there were over 70 incinerators across China. The current number is not known, but certainly many more are in the planning stages.

But protests have spread with the incinerators. Last October, thousands of people blockaded a newly-built incinerator near Wujiang, a city on the eastern seaboard, and forced the government to halt its operation. In November, public demonstrations near the southern metropolis of Guangzhou saw the government delay a waste-to-power plant for further environmental study. In December, residents near Shenzhen, also in the south, protested the building of a third incinerator near their community.

Most public concern is about a family of toxic chemicals called dioxins, which can be generated through combustion. The toxins can damage human immune systems, as well as nervous systems. Some studies show chronic exposure to high levels of dioxins can dramatically increase the risk of cancer among humans. “I have a one-year-old child,” said Tan Sitong, another A Su Wei anti-incinerator activist, and who also uses an alias. “Taking in such toxins will have the most impact on him when he’s growing.”

Advocates for incineration say the public’s fear of dioxins is often based on misleading information from sensational media reports. Dioxins can be reduced to a level that is safe to human health, said Xu Haiyun, chief engineer at the China Research Society of Urban Development. “Technologically there’s no problem. There are many mature cases in the United States and Europe to prove that… Taiwan and Macau also have successful examples.”

According to the World Health Organisation, there is a level of exposure to dioxins below which cancer risk would be negligible. China requires that incinerators discharge no more than one nanogram of dioxin per cubic metre. The European Union sets a standard that is one-tenth of that amount.

Beijing officials say that waste-to-power plants will be built according to EU standards.

But that does not placate incineration opponents. “So what if they can reach the EU benchmark?” asked Zhao Zhangyuan, a researcher on environmental protection at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He has emerged as a leader of China’s anti-incineration movement. Dioxin can stay in the environment for hundreds of years and accumulate in human bodies, therefore, “no one can guarantee that the EU standard won’t be harmful to human health.” And to meet the requirement, “the prescribed procedure has to be strictly followed,” said Zhao. “But in our country, abnormal practices often happen in such a complicated operation.”

Certainly in a number of fields, there are documented examples of companies cutting corners and government officials turning their heads the other way. Even supporters of incineration admit that it is not enough just to import western technology.

Two-thirds of Beijing’s rubbish, said Wei Panming, the city planning official, is kitchen waste. That means the garbage is moist and generates less heat than other types of solid waste. To minimize dioxin, it is critical to keep the temperature in the incinerator above 850 degrees Celsius. Companies therefore often add coal or diesel for extra heat, which costs more and generates more greenhouse-gas emissions. Critics of incineration say there is no trusted body in China to make sure companies are doing the right thing.

The fierce debates on incineration have sometimes turned personal. Some supporters of incineration call Zhao a hoax. Opponents dub scholars like Xu “unscrupulous experts” bought off by business. “Their interests are connected,” said Bai, the activist at A Su Wei, referring to what he considers expert-industry collusion. “There’s no-one to counterbalance them other than the public. And the information available to the public bears no comparison to theirs.”

Public opposition makes it difficult for companies and investors to plan for the long term. “Those in the industry feel confused,” said Wen Yibo, CEO of Beijing Sound Group, which runs the A Su Wei garbage-processing facility. “The government hasn’t stood up and spoken about garbage incineration. Is waste-to-power good or bad? When problems arise, the government seems to be speechless.”

Each side of the debate is looking to the central government for support. Those in the pro-incineration camp are calling for more efforts in a propaganda campaign to inform and educate the public. The opposition wants the government to stop giving financial incentives to waste-fired power plants.

But so far, dramatic policy changes look unlikely. “Turning garbage into a resource and using it is a good thing for sure,” said Xue Huifeng, director of the legislative office of the National People’s Congress. At a Beijing conference on solid waste processing, he said problems surrounding incineration mostly come from the enforcement of the policies, rather than the policies themselves. He affirmed that the government will continue to support waste-to-power. “But I’m talking about giving support according to the law,” he said. “Companies that don’t follow the law certainly won’t receive support.”

That may explain why, at a recent meeting, Beijing officials told A Su Wei residents that they will “resolutely” continue pushing for the building of the incinerator. Hence the struggle continues. “You can talk about governing by law,” said Bai Fuqin. “We can fight for our rights by law.”

Xie Yanmei is a Beijing-based freelance reporter

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