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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 — 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 — 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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