Beijing grapples with overflowing garbage problems

Source:Global Times Published: 2014-12-16 18:58:02

The growing amount of waste Beijing generates and the lack of sites for landfills has forced the Beijing government to restart its incineration plant projects, some of which have been suspended due to vehement public protests.

Residents living near the planned Asuwei garbage incineration plant visit Gao'antun incinerators on a tour organized by the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment on June 26, 2010. Photo: IC

Huang Xiaoshan isn't going to fight this time. After battling against the construction of an incineration plant near his home five years ago, he wasn't surprised to hear from a friend that the project is about to be restarted. But now, Huang has given up any hope of protest, because he sees the project as inevitable.

In 2009, construction of the 1,200-ton capacity plant in Asuwei village in Beijing's Changping district was forced to suspend after residents from a nearby upscale neighborhood, led by Huang, launched a massive opposition movement against it, fearing it would cause environmental problems in surrounding areas and have a negative influence on the neighborhood.

On September 4 that year, the opening day of an environment and sanitation exposition, Huang Xiaoshan and nearly 100 fellow residents gathered at the front of the National Agriculture Exhibition Center and raised banners calling for a halt to the plant. While Huang was later detained for "causing public disorder," the incident made national headlines and the government had to suspend the project.

Five years later, the project is reportedly about to go through another round of environmental impact assessment in an attempt to relaunch it. A municipal government document shows that by 2015, Beijing will build 44 waste processing projects, including 10 incineration projects. Most of these projects are opposed by local residents, but the government seems determined to bring them back on schedule.

Four years ago, Huang was invited by the Beijing government to accompany municipal officials to visit Japan and study its strict approach to sort household waste. Huang was amazed by Japan's rigorous sorting system and advocated the Chinese government to do the same. He told the media that if sorting was properly promoted by the government, Chinese could become equally conscientious.

Now Huang has abandoned his position, "Nowadays, people keep invoking their rights and yet ignore their social responsibility. It is people, not the government, who generate garbage, and we have to be responsible for the outcome of our own behavior," Huang said.

Leaking landfills

Garbage disposal was not an issue in Beijing before the 1980s, when most of the city's garbage were delivered to the still rural outskirts and used as fertilizer. The situation changed as non-biodegradable plastic, metal and glass became increasingly common in Chinese household waste. The Beijing government, however, didn't have the equipment or regulations for garbage recycling nor regulations on how to manage garbage, and open dumping became rife in the mid-1980s.

An official at the Beijing Environment Sanitation Engineering Group recalled, "Once a site was filled with garbage, we dumped the waste at another site, and soon open dumps filled areas between the second ring road and the third and reached out to the fourth and finally the fifth." A flyover of the city in the late 1980s found over 4700 open dumps over 50 square meters large between the third ring road and the fourth ring road.

The government realized it had to do something about the garbage, or the city would become an urban wasteland. Landfills, easier to build and cheaper, became the first choice. Beijing built its first landfil, the Asuwei landfill, in 1994, and soon more landfills and garbage transportation stations followed.

Over the years, the downside of landfill became obvious. One was pollution. In 2001, research led by Zhao Zhangyuan, a research fellow at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, on the Asuwei landfill in 2001 showed that it produced objectionable odor and polluted water as far as 4 kilometers away.

Research led by Zhao on other landfill sites in Beijing produced similar results. "We found that landfill leachate was common and contaminated underground water. Villagers near the landfills suffered from similar diseases. We suggested for the first time that the city should abandon landfills," Zhao said.

By the early 2000s, 90 percent of Beijing's garbage went to landfill. But as the city expanded, the existing sites were no longer able to handle the 1.84 tons of garbage produced by the city every day, growing at 7 to 10 percent each year.

That was when the Beijing government started to consider incineration.

Compared with landfills, incineration plants are smaller and able to compress garbage by 80 to 90 percent, a big saving in urban areas. Incineration plants can also produce electricity that in the long run can help to reduce costs.

In 2003, Beijing issued a white book on garbage disposal and set the target of building three incineration plants by 2008. However, only the Gao'antun incineration plant began operation. Construction of the other three plants, like the Asuwei site, was stalled after vehement public protests.

Public doubts

The Lujiashan incineration plant, one of three largest household garbage incineration projects in China, sits in the suburb of Beijing in Mentougou district. Now running on a trial basis, it started operation at the end of last year and is expected to process 3,000 tons of garbage and produce 360 million kilowatts of electricity each year, as well as providing enough heat to warm 10 million square meters.

In 2009, the State-owned steel company Shougang Group, under pressure to shift its main business due to overcapacity in the steel sector, saw opportunities in the city's waste management sector. With three plants stalled due to local opposition, the government had to launch another project as soon as possible to cope with the increasing amount of wastes.

To avoid public protest, Shougang chose to build the plant in its own former mining site, about 40 kilometers from Beijing's city center. On July 21, 2010, the 2.16 billion yuan project, collectively funded by the Shougang Group and the Beijing municipal government, officially started construction.

The plant managers boast of world class technology and strict adherence to emission standards. Zhao Shuming, head of the plant's technology department, said that it uses German technology and Japanese equipment, and that the plant cooperates closely with Beijing's environment authorities to ensure it meets their standards. These official claims, however, cannot satisfy environmentalists, who have been pushing hard for more transparency.

 At the end of 2013, Chen Liwen, from the environmental NGO Nature University, sent a request to Beijing's Environment Protection Bureau to publish the environmental impact assessment report of the Lujiashan plant, including its emission details. The bureau responded by saying that the project wasn't officially completed and data wasn't available.

This was just one example of their failed requests for transparency. Since 2010, the NGO has submitted 28 requests for local governments to publicize incineration projects and most went unresponded.

Reports that some incineration plants used additives to boost electricity generation or lower incinerator temperatures to save costs have deepened public doubts about the plants. "People are worried more about the management (rather than the technology)," Chen said.

No alternative

The internationally recommended "Three 'R's" principle for waste treatment - reduce, reuse, recycle - emphasizes reducing waste at the source or encouraging individuals to sort their waste in the home. Few Chinese households bother to do this, instead throwing away mixed organic and inorganic waste. Biological reprocessing, viewed internationally as the most environmentally friendly technique for waste disposal, is only viable when organic waste is completely separated from other garbage. But unless Chinese households begin sorting garbage on a large scale, mixed-waste incinerators are likely to remain the government's favored disposal method. However, these incinerators, which burn mixed organic and inorganic, wet and dry garbage, produce large-scale toxic emissions that are virtually impossible to mitigate.

Chen Liwen said that 50 to 60 percent of Chinese household waste is organic kitchen garbage - meaning a high water content and a low heat value. "This variety of garbage is not suitable for incineration, and burning it releases emissions that are hard to control and monitor," he said.

By the end of 2013, Beijing had included 2,915 neighborhoods in a trial garbage sorting awareness program, covering 5 million residents. The neighborhoods are equipped with 3 million sets of sorted household trashbins and 50,000 neighborhood trash cans. Over 20,000 volunteers were deployed in the neighborhood to promote garbage sorting knowledge and supervise residents when they dump garbage.

While the numbers may impress, in reality, the effect has been small. Zhang Hongying, an official at the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment, said that residents' response to the campaigns have been cold. The volunteers often have to sort the garbage themselves, since residents didn't follow sorting regulations.

Echoing local activist Huang's feelings that people simply aren't ready for the challenge of recycling, most Chinese waste management officials agree that incinerators are far from an ideal solution to Beijing's garbage problem, but claim that without social change, any attempt to handle the city's waste through more environmentally friendly methods is doomed to fail. Some have even called for a "trash tax," charging residents directly for waste disposal services, but so far no such measures have been adopted.

Global Times

Newspaper headline: Rubbish choices

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