Garbage-Burning Plants And The Rise Of China’s NIMBY Wars

Woefully under-regulated and sometimes abjectly illegal, waste incineration plants across China are raising resident hackles and, worse, releasing unknown levels of toxins into the air.

Garbage-Burning Plants And The Rise Of China’s NIMBY Wars
Cui Zheng

BEIJING â€" In China’s coastal Zhejiang region, residents blocked garbage trucks for three days last month to protest against a local waste incineration plant. Police finally had to remove the protesting villagers to allow traffic and the waste transport to continue.

Over the past decade such Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) incidents by local residents against waste incineration plants have multiplied in China. Like in Western countries, locals want to keep their towns and neighborhoods free of potential environmental risks. It is compounded here because China has no effective garbage classification and because environmental scandals about existing plants occur far too often.

"Today, the argument should no longer be whether the incineration plants should be built, but about forbidding illegal waste-burning," says Guo Yungao, secretary-general of the Power Generation branch of China's Resources Comprehensive Utilization Association.

Not only do such irregularities cause anger among nearby residents but they also discredit the entire sector. In May, several environmental NGOs made requests to 103 local environmental protection authorities to access pollutant-monitoring data and information about the handling of fly ash from some 160 incinerators. Only 65 of these plants provided even part of the requested 10 pollutant indicators.

Data about toxic dioxin and hazardous fly ash were especially absent. Megacities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are particularly reluctant to respond to these requests.

China has been besieged by garbage over the past decade, and it's become an urgent issue in many major cities. For now, the only feasible way to cope with the massive amount of waste is to use incinerators. There are just over 200 of them in China, which is far from adequate. Both investors and garbage incineration businesses see huge opportunity in this market.

The illicit operation and discharge of Woudingshan incineration plant in Wuhan, the capital of the central Hubei Province, sparked a wave of public concern six months ago. It runs without governmental approval, and the pungent stench of burning plastic led to protests and clashes with the police.

Chen Liwen, a member of the Nature University NGO, says the disappointing way authorities and operators responded in Wuhan only confirms residents' suspicion.

Guo Yungao says there is a major problem of "self-discipline" in the sector, with operators typically underbidding to win contracts: "And because the plants don't earn enough profit, they then cut corners at the expense of the environment."

The crux

One resident who attended a protest against Beijing's Asuwei project says the problem is twofold. "First, the effect on health. Second, falling house prices."

Sophisticated city dwellers are more likely to educate themselves about the risks of dioxin, fly ash and heavy metals, but rural people tend to rely on word of mouth, often fearing cancer and birth defects. Not that their fears are completely unfounded.

Their first and most direct concern is the unpleasant smell. The odor caused by the rotting and fermenting procedures may not necessarily mean that these incinerators exceed their emissions limit, but it is a daily reminder to citizens that there is a big chimney burning filthy stuff right beside them.

The odor of sewage, sludge and waste disposal has always been a big challenge for environment-related industry. It also makes up one of the indicators of management finesse in environmental protection. The problem of the smell is often what sparks the locals' "NIMBY" protests against these plants.

But while odor is very real, the real issues are environmental: technical regulatory procedures, environmental impact assessments, dust emissions and filtering equipment and fly ash disposal. These are the real problems.

Take fly ash as an example. It refers to the residue collected by the flue gas purification system of a solid waste incineration power plant. It's included in the national list of hazardous waste and is primarily disposed of in landfills.

Landfills can only be used for a limited number of years, yet dioxin and heavy metal in fly ash contamination can persist for up to 100 years. Their long-term accumulation will bring huge potential risks.

Meanwhile, as China's environmental NGO reports show, there are serious pollution issues among country's operating incinerators. Chen Liwen visited the communities of a dozen incinerators and found that even those hyped as "transparent and model" unlawfully churn out fly ash and other pollutants.

The bad faith of waste incineration operators and regulatory authorities is discrediting the sector. Zhang Yi, director of Shanghai's Environmental Engineering Design Research Institute, says that involved parties always promise to conform to regulations when building city facilities such as garbage transfer stations and landfills. But eventually there's always a problem that leads to public backlash.

How to move forward

Zhang estimates that in the next two decades, the number of incinerators will increase to more than 1,000, five times the current number. And with it will come more NIMBY protests from worried parents â€" and concerned homeowners.

"Even if the concern about the impact on health is solved, people will still worry about their economic loss," he says. "Therefore, to really solve the conflicts, certain compensation mechanisms must be put in place, through a reduction in electricity prices, the building of public facilities, as well environmental improvement of the concerned community."

Chinese reliance on these plants represents just one-tenth of other advanced countries. "Their core technology and equipment are more or less the same," one expert says. "The cost of human resources is slightly different. The greatest difference is that, for example, in Japan, they invest in environmental discharges regardless of the cost, and actively contribute to the local community as payback."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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