Incinerator protests fire debate over China's growing garbage problem

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When hundreds of people in a south China city took to the streets earlier this week to protest a planned garbage incinerator project, they highlighted a growing problem for China's booming cities.

The protestors in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, were demanding the local government scrap the incinerator plant, which, they claimed, would release carcinogens into the air.

But for city administrators it meant finding other alternatives to overflowing landfills.

"The incineration of household garbage can generate cancer-causing substances like dioxin," resident Guo Lin said.

"It is really absurd. How can the government come up with such an idea? More than 300,000 people are living around the proposed incinerator plant."


The government and residents have been sharply divided on whether to build the plant since late September when the plan was first unveiled.

"The Panyu District is home to 2.5 million people and almost 600,000 tonnes of household garbage are created every year. It is predicted that 2,200 tonnes of household garbage will be created every day next year in the district," said Ye Wen, deputy director of the Panyu District Bureau of Urban Utilities and Landscaping.

"But our current waste disposal capabilities cannot cope with the increasing amount of household garbage. It is an urgent, practical and inevitable problem," he said.

The new incinerator is planned for the site of a former landfill in Huijiang Village, in Dashi Township, with a designed handling capacity of 2,000 tonnes daily. It would also be a trash-fired power plant.

"After years of deliberation, the municipal government has decided to develop trash-fired power plants as they do not occupy much land and can utilize resources very efficiently," said Xu Jianyun, deputy director of the Guangzhou Municipal Committee of Urban Administration.

He said the city, with a population of more than 10 million, generates up to 12,000 tonnes of household garbage each day.

"If new waste treatment facilities are not built, Guangzhou will face a huge garbage crisis over the next two years," he said.

Lu Zhiyi, deputy secretary-general of the Guangzhou municipal government and a strong supporter of the incinerator project, dismissed pollution fears.

"With modern technology, the waste discharge of the incinerator is able to meet national and international standards, which have been recognized by environmental experts," he said.

"The project will not affect the environment and can be accepted."

But residents disagree. "We have collected a great deal of information about waste-to-energy plants on the Internet, in books and field surveys, all showing that they are still heavily-polluting and have been abandoned in many countries," resident Zhao Hui said.

"We can learn from the experiences of developed countries and solve the problem through garbage classification and landfilling. Why do we have to use incineration?" he said.

In addition to health and pollution fears, residents worry about the values of their properties.

"I bought an apartment here a few years ago just because the air quality is better than in downtown areas. If the incinerator is built, it will not only harm everybody's health, but also lead to a plunge in housing prices," resident Lu Ping said.

The public discontent reached a climax after a press conference by the municipal government over the weekend, during which officials insisted that the construction would go on.

That led to the reportedly peaceful protest outside the compound of the municipal government Monday.


It is a dilemma not only for the Panyu District and Guangzhou, but for cities across China, as protests against government plans to build waste incinerators have also been reported in Beijing, Shenzhen and cities in eastern Jiangsu Province earlier this year.

"As cities develop quickly, waste disposal has become an increasingly prominent issue in China," said Wen Hengfeng, who is in charge of a plastics-reduction program under the Global Village of Beijing Environmental Education Center, a non-governmental organization.

Citing government statistics, she said Beijing, with a population of about 17 million, created 18,400 tonnes of garbage every day, but the city had only a designed disposal capacity of 10,400 tonnes daily and an actual capacity of 17,400 tonnes a day.

"All of the city's landfills will be full within four or five years if no measures are to be taken," she said.

Theoretically, the waste discharge of incinerators could be controlled within acceptable limits, but targets would be difficult to maintain in practice due to factors, such as a lack of strict supervision, she said.

"From a long-term view, we should make greater efforts to reduce the creation of garbage, strengthen garbage sorting and recycling," she said.

In addition to landfilling, incineration, garbage sorting and recycling, experts have given other alternatives for waste disposal, such as thermal degradation, bio-fermentation and chemical means.

"Every method has its advantages and disadvantages. Different areas can choose different ways based on their own conditions," said Li Shaozhen, of the Public Welfare Program Department with the Guangdong Provincial Environmental Protection Foundation, in an interview.

For example, landfilling could lead to pollution with the discharge of percolate and harmful gases, she said.

Although thermal degradation and bio-fermentation could have a relatively lower negative impact on the environment, they required high-quality, expensive equipment and massive investment, she said.

"In my view, it would be a good choice to combine bio-fermentation, chemical treatment, garbage sorting and recycling in a reasonable way," she said.


"The government and public are actually quarreling over many technical issues," said Wang Zechu, a counselor for Guangdong provincial government, when commenting on the protest in Guangzhou.

"Both government officials and residents fail to provide convincing environment and health data related to the incinerator. In addition, the two sides have not conducted effective communication," he said.

Local residents say they should have been invited to discuss the incinerator from the outset when the project was proposed.

But government officials say public participation means the public can only join in environmental assessment after the project has been approved by the municipal planning and land authorities.

"As the project involves the interests of so many people, the government should fully consider public opinion from the start," Wang said.

This way or another, environmental experts suggest the governments of all Chinese cities should step up efforts in introducing and developing advanced, green technologies in waste disposal.

"From a long-term perspective, the government, businesses and public all should be responsible for urban waste disposal," said Prof. Wang Weiping, a specialist on environmental economics from the Beijing-based People's University of China.

"The government should -- through legislation, supervision and stimulation -- encourage businesses to adopt more advanced waste disposal technologies and order environmental authorities to enhance monitoring and protection efforts in the process of waste treatment," he said.

The Panyu district government has halted the controversial project.

"We will launch a half-year consultation process with the public, the media and experts to look for a better way to treat household garbage," said Lou Xukui, head of the Panyu District government.

Meanwhile, the Guangzhou Municipal Committee of Urban Administration said government clerks would be sent to every household to solicit opinions.

"The government will abide by the openness and transparency principle in choosing the location of the incinerator," said Su Zequn, executive vice mayor of Guangzhou.

"We promise the project will not be started if it fails to pass environmental assessment or if it is opposed by the majority of residents," he said.

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