Wary Citizens Resist China’s Push to Build World’s Largest Incinerator

By Michael Standaert

Nov. 23 — About a dozen people sat at the back of a courtroom in Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court in early November, hoping their complaint against the municipal government to release documentation related to environmental impact assessments and planning for what will be the largest incinerator in the world would get a fair hearing.

The lawyer representing a group of Shenzhen citizens has given a vigorous defense of their right to review the information during most of the hearing, while the lawyer representing the Shenzhen government has been on the defensive, mainly using procedural arguments to block its release.

A group of citizens and their online compatriots have paid for their lawyer—known as a firebrand who has won similar cases in the past—by raising about 300,000 yuan ($43,500) in a crowdfunding campaign.

After two hours of deliberation, the three-judge panel said it would issue a ruling at a later date.

Residents have been trying for three years to stop construction of the Shenzhen East Waste-to-Energy Plant. The incinerator is being built in a valley near three major reservoirs that provide water for the Longgang district and other parts of Shenzhen. Once completed, around 2020, the plant will be able to burn about 5,000 metric tons of municipal solid waste a day.

Not in My Backyard

Li Zhixuan, a local housewife who has been one of the most active opponents of the project, said the Shenzhen government is protecting the Shenzhen Energy Environmental Protection Co., the project’s owner and operator, and not thinking about the concerns of residents or what they say are irreversible impacts on the environment.

“If we get the documents released, we will find the loopholes and file more cases,” Li told Bloomberg BNA outside the courtroom on Nov. 8. “Our goal is to stop this incinerator from being built.”

Li, who lives about eight miles from the Shenzhen East project, is concerned about the reservoirs near the site that could be contaminated by airborne pollutants, as well as leaching from toxic fly ash that will be landfilled at the site. In addition, carbon emissions are expected to increase.

She hopes the city will adopt more distributed waste processing practices, expand recycling and resorting policies and avoid incineration altogether.

“This is not simply a NIMBY [not in my backyard] issue,” Li said. “There are a lot of very real concerns behind it.”

Li also wonders about the incinerator’s location. “Internationally, incinerators are usually being built in remote areas, not right next to reservoirs. There are better options near Shenzhen where they could have located it,” she said.

Zhang Jingning, a representative of the a nongovernmental organization Wuhu Ecological Center told Bloomberg BNA that village commissions usually oppose new incinerator projects, because they are concerned about pollution and property values, among other factors. But sometimes village commissions oppose projects in an effort to increase the compensation they get for requisitioned lands.

Emissions Data

China currently has around 230 operating incinerators and another 100 under construction, according to Zhang. Most facilities have done a poor job disclosing emissions data, she said.

China is making a concerted effort to reduce emissions and toughen air pollution standards. The Ministry of Environmental Protection’s latest incinerator standards, released in July 2014, went into effect Jan. 1, 2016, and include higher standards for conventional pollutants and dioxin.

A waste-to-energy incinerator study that the NGO released in early 2016, found that 70 percent of the 76 facilities studied released emissions data and only 48.7 percent of those met the latest emissions standards.

According to the study, in many cases burning units had become corroded because of poor classification and separation practices and emissions were not curtailed because workers were not operating desulfurization or denitrification technology properly.

“We think incineration is like treating a fever with medicine, it doesn’t get to the root cause,” Zhang said. “China’s government sees that residential waste continues to grow, so they want to build more incinerators. Taiwan faced a similar problem before, but they decided to spend more on sorting and recycling waste. We think there should also be a push for sorting-and-recycling systems and for reducing waste at the source.”

Operating at Capacity

Yet something needs to be done to address the growing waste problem in Shenzhen and across the China where landfills are at or near capacity, and the central government is pushing incineration as the answer.

Under the current 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020), China wants to nearly double daily incineration capacity—from about 233,000 metric tons a day in 2015 to more than 400,000 metric tons a day by the end of 2020.

Local governments see incineration, particularly waste-to-energy projects, which burn trash to produce usable electricity, as a way to deal with the explosion of waste while also meeting local energy needs.

But opposition to new incinerators has led to massive and sometimes violent protests across China, most recently in Hubei, Hunan and Guangdong provinces.

Hundreds of villagers from near the area of the Shenzhen East project protested in front of the municipal government building earlier this year, leading to dozens of arrests. Sit-ins also have been held at district offices in Longgang and the neighboring Dapeng district.

Shenzhen Bets on Incineration

Like many major eastern cities, Shenzhen is reaching a crisis point in dealing with municipal waste, despite already having 10 operating incinerators, five of which burn municipal solid waste to generate electricity.

The South China municipality just north of Hong Kong produced 15,000 metric tons of municipal solid waste a day in 2015, with that total expected to reach 20,000 metric tons a day by 2020, according to the local government. The city’s three major landfills are now operating at overcapacity, and nearby residents regularly complain of the stench.

By expanding garbage-sorting practices and completing the Shenzhen East Waste-to-Energy Plant, the city can reach a rate of nearly zero residential waste being landfilled by 2020, according to the municipal solid waste treatment plan.

A Shenzhen urban planner interviewed by Bloomberg BNA in September who did not want his name used for this article, said garbage-sorting policies were not “efficient enough to cut down the amount of garbage” and if incinerators could be built to high standards, “there is not much to worry about.”

But that still may not be enough. Shenzen could “delay” the landfill problem for five to 10 years this way, but then another batch of incinerators would be needed, the planner said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Standaert in Shenzhen, China, at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

For More Information

Shenzhen plan on incinerator projects through 2020 is available, in Chinese, at http://src.bna.com/keg.

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