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Stand-off in Beijing

Xie Yanmei

Readinch

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

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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

Homepage image from longquanzs.com

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焚烧厨余垃圾

中国垃圾分类为什么就老做不起来了,焚烧厨余垃圾,简直不可思议!垃圾分类本身是一个很简单,可行的垃圾处理方案,但怎么实施起来,总是困难重重。

burning kitchen and residual wastes

I just don't know why is so difficult to exercise rubbish sorting in China, and it is unbelievable to burn all the kitchen and other residual wastes. Wastes sorting itself is a very simple and practical waste management option, but it faces so many obstacles regarding to its implementation.


一个不短暂的过程

垃圾分类可不像想象的那么简单,更不是一个分类垃圾桶能够解决的问题。焚烧场是否可行,关键是看处理污染的措施和监管以及监督的力度。

This is not a short-term process

Garbage classification is not that simple. It is definitely not just a question of separating garbage in the rubbish bin. Whether or not burning garbage is a feasible idea totally depends on vigor of the pollution control measures and the vigor of the supervision and control.


人民意识觉醒问题

关于垃圾处理问题,政府还是要从人民对垃圾分类的意识上着手。人民意识觉醒,懂得节约垃圾分类,政府出台的关于垃圾处理的措施实施起来也就更得心应手。加强对民众的教育问题也很重要。

Raising people's awareness of the problem

With regard to the waste disposal problem, the government should take action on people's awareness of waste separation. If they raised people's awareness and understanding of how you can economize by separating waste, the implementation of the measures the government put forth concerning waste disposal would be more successful. Strengthening the education of the population is also very important.


意识不是大问题

我不认为3号评论所说的“人民垃圾分类的意识”是个大问题。

垃圾分类对于一个三口之家来说难度不大。考虑到材质、体积等问题,很多家庭对于纸张、塑料和玻璃器皿本来就不是和厨余一起处理的。但是从家里拿下楼去反而“不分你我”了。

问题在政府没有足够决心,人民也就没有信心。我完全不相信即便我做到了垃圾分类,他们到了垃圾厂,就真的分开处理了。

垃圾分类不是在街上摆几个长的不一样的垃圾桶就能解决问题的。最重要的环节在终端。在人们相信自己的小小的投入不是没有意义的。

Awareness is not the big issue

I do not think that what Comment 3 refers to as 'people's awareness of waste seperation' is the big issue.
Waste separation is not difficult for a family of three. Taking into account issues such as material and space, many households dispose of paper, plastic and glassware seperate from other kitchen waste. However when they leave the home and go downstairs, then there is 'no difference between you and me'.
The problem is that the government does not have sufficient determination, and so the people have no faith. I absolutely do not believe that even if I separate my waste, that they will take it to a waste disposal centre where is will be properly separated.
Waste seperation is not an issue that cannot be resolved by placing several different rubbish bins along the street. The most important link in the chain is where the waste ends up. So that people can believe that their own individual actions are not meaningless.


让垃圾处理程序公开化?

群众不是不信任垃圾焚烧,是不信任政府

Disclosure of the procedure of wate treatment?

The public do trust the treatment of incineration. It is the government they don't trust.


垃圾是资源!中国政府!该行动了!

为什么垃圾分类回收利用的问题在中国那么难??
每次看到村庄旁边乱堆放的垃圾,明明有很多都可以回收的,更不用说大街小巷的分类回收垃圾桶了,我们丢进去的垃圾能变成可以利用的资源吗?垃圾真的是一无是处吗?最起码厨余垃圾可以拿去堆肥,瓶瓶罐罐还可以再次利用呀!
为什么日本可以做到?这么强势的中国政府不可以做到?不要怪民众!
政府!真的该行动了!

Garbage is a resource! The Chinese government needs to take action!

Why is the garbage classification so difficult in China? Every time I see trash piled up carelessly in the village, it’s easy to tell that there are recyclable items mixed in with trash. Not to mention the recycle bins next to rubbish bins all over the city. Can the things that we throw away become usable resources? Is rubbish really useless? At the very least, kitchen waste can turn into compost and bottles and jars can be reused. Why is Japan capable of accomplishing this? Why can’t such a powerful country like China accomplish this? Don’t blame the people! Blame the government! It should really take action! (Translated by Michelle Deeter)


看来中国政府、北京市及许多其他城市已经就停止垃圾焚烧达成了共识

根据欧盟的研究调查和乙醇公司的垃圾工程,中国政府决定改变策略,从耗资更多并且有可能带来令大众无法接受的环境问题的垃圾焚烧转向生产乙醇及丁醇等生化燃料。这样一来,中国将替代每年花费1500亿美元进口石油而进行绿色可再生燃料的生产以满足国内迅速增长的汽车用户。我们对此可以理解,因为这一投资的花费将会比垃圾焚烧提案减少15%,而且可以使用原有的更安全的烯酸水解系统来生产生化燃料,这一系统不会使用在全世界范围内都引起争论的转基因生物技术。我们也能理解,这项投资和目前在欧盟境内的发展相契合,据欧盟本地条款,欧盟生产的乙醇比巴西的价格更低,因为制造乙醇的原材料并非粮食作物。而这也和政府及清华大学的专家学者所想一致。

It appears that the PRC and Beijing and many other cities have finally agreed that Incineration is to be banned out right.

Following an investigation to a European study and works being developed by a Waste to Ethanol company the PRC has decided to change its tactics from the ever expensive and unacceptable environmental consequence of incinerating waste to make the biofuels ethanol and Butanol. By doing this China will be able to avoid importing $150 Billion of oil per year by making a Green Alternative Renewable Fuel for its burgeoning car users.
We understand that this investment will cost less than 15% of the current proposals for incineration and will be able to use the oldest and safest system to make biofuels - dilute acid hydrolysis - which does not use Genetically Modified Organisms that have caused major problems across the World. We also understand that this investment will embrace a development currently being expanded across the EU which in local terms means that in the EU they will be able to make Ethanol cheaper than the Brazilians can because the raw material is not a food crop. This is totally in line with the PRC think tanks and Tsinghua University.


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