As China Pushes Waste-to-Energy Incinerators, Protests Are Mounting

With its burgeoning economy producing vast quantities of garbage, China is turning to new facilities that burn solid waste to produce electricity. But local citizens are increasingly protesting these incinerators, fearful that they emit toxic pollutants.

What once was a lush valley studded with small fish ponds, just north of one of Shenzhen’s major drinking water reservoirs, is now a vast crater of red earth — the construction site of what is expected to become the largest waste-to-energy incinerator plant on earth.

A group of several dozen Shenzhen residents — fearing that landfilled waste ash, leachate, and airborne pollutants from the future Shenzhen East Waste-to-Energy Plant will make their way into the reservoir and the air — has launched a legal battle to halt the project. Their hope: to force authorities to relocate the waste-to-energy plant away from the reservoir, away from their communities, and closer to less-populated areas on the South China coast.  

Activists protest waste-to-energy incinerators in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

Activists protest waste-to-energy incinerators in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

Theirs is one of dozens of protests and lawsuits that have sprung up in China in recent years over the spread of waste-to-energy incineration plants, a technology that the central government and regional authorities view as essential to dealing with China’s rapidly growing solid waste problem. Over the past few years, protests against planned incinerators have taken place in Hubei, Hunan, Guangdong, Shandong, Hainan, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang provinces. Several have turned violent, exposing significant public distrust about these facilities. 

As China’s economy has boomed in recent decades, the amount of garbage and solid waste generated in the country has soared from roughly 30 million tons in 1980 to 200 million tons today, most of it winding up in ill-tended landfills around major cities. Those landfills are at or near capacity, spawning illegal waste dumping and burning. The World Bank estimates that by 2025, China’s solid waste generation will double to more than 500 million tons annually.

In Shenzhen, a teeming industrial city of 13 million near Hong Kong, the volume of solid waste has skyrocketed from 50 tons a day in 1979 to 15,000 tons today — a 300-fold increase. The region is expected to reach its landfill capacity by 2021.The waste management problem has become so acute in Shenzhen that in December 2015 a mountain of construction debris and trash collapsed and cascaded into industrial and residential areas, killing at least 69 people.

But those protesting the Shenzhen East Waste-to-Energy Plant — which will produce enough electricity to power roughly 100,000 apartments — fear the facility will emit high levels of dioxins and other toxins. Their concerns persist despite assurances from the project’s developers that they will be employing state-of-the-art incineration technology and housing the operation in a building designed by two respected Danish architectural firms.

The Chinese government has set a target of disposing of nearly a third of the country’s garbage with waste-to-energy plants by 2030.

The Shenzhen Intermediate People’s court ruled in the citizens group’s favor last December, requiring the municipal government to release a full environmental impact assessment, planning documents, and other data. The group used a crowd-funding campaign to raise 300,0000 yuan — $44,000 — to hire lawyers to press its case. 

The Shenzhen government has appealed the decision, sending it to the Guangdong provincial Supreme People’s Court in Guangzhou, where it currently remains in limbo as construction on the site begins. 

Li Zhixuan, a middle-class housewife and mother who has emerged as a leader for the group, bristles at the mention of the term NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), which officials and state-run media often use to describe opponents of incinerators here. 

“This is not a simple NIMBY issue, there are a lot of very real concerns behind our opposition,” Li says. “The reservoir is only a kilometer away and the pollutants could reach it. There is also the air pollution. The government claims the incinerator will meet standards, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be pollution, or cross pollution, since the reservoir is connected to other water sources.”

The Shenzhen East incinerator is designed to burn a third of the city’s residential waste each day, and officials hope to expand existing incinerators or build new ones to increase the amount of garbage incinerated to more than half of the city’s total by 2020. By then, Shenzhen is expected to generate 20,000 tons of municipal solid waste a day.

In China as a whole, the volume of municipal solid waste is growing at about 8 to 10 percent a year, and Beijing increasingly sees incinerators as an important solution to China’s waste woes. The central government has set a target of disposing of nearly a third of the country’s garbage and trash with waste-to-energy plants by 2030. China’s housing, development, land, and environment ministries issued a document last November urging local governments to accelerate the construction of incinerators.

A worker tosses garbage into an overflowing waste facility in Shenzhen. The city produces 300 times more trash today than it did in the 1970s.

A worker tosses garbage into an overflowing waste facility in Shenzhen. The city produces 300 times more trash today than it did in the 1970s. China Photos/Getty Images

Wuhu Ecology Center, an environmental group in Anhui province that follows incinerator development in China, said that as of last year there were 231 incinerators in the country and another 103 being built or planned. The group, along with several partner NGOs around the country, also tries to monitor emissions from the existing facilities, but found that only 77 of the incinerators disclosed emissions data. Of those, around 20 percent did not meet the latest 2014 emissions standard requirements, the group found. 

“The investments to construct and maintain these facilities are huge, and the companies that build them still need to make a profit,” Zhang Jingning, a representative of the Wuhu Ecology Center said. “They are similar to wastewater treatment plants in that they are a government-run business, so it can be difficult for environmental protection bureaus to supervise them.”

A central concern among incinerator opponents is that while well-financed incinerators like Shenzhen East may be using combustion and pollution-control technology equivalent to the latest incinerators in Europe and Japan, many incinerators in second- and third-tier Chinese cities are being built more cheaply and with inferior pollution controls. Even officials such as Teng Shengjun, senior engineer at the Urban Planning & Design Institute in Shenzhen, are concerned about low-cost waste-to-energy plants, some of which burn waste for as little as $2.60 a ton. Teng says that’s about 20 times cheaper than the cost of top European waste-to-energy incinerators and at least five times cheaper than the cost of burning solid waste in the future Shenzhen East plant.

During a tour of a waste-to-energy plant on the other side of Shenzhen — this one operated by the same company building Shenzhen East — spokesperson Zhang Rigang compared the technology and standards being used to state-of-the art facilities in Europe. “They say Germany has the highest technology standards [for incinerators], but I think this is the best — it is very strong technology,” Zhang said. 

We walk into to a room full of monitors, with engineers quietly tapping away on keyboards. Pollution emissions levels are on display, just as they are outside the facility as you drive up, on a large board in LED lighting. “I get a text message [from the local environmental protection department] if any of the emissions levels are too high,” Zhang said. 

State-of-the-art incineration plants burn garbage at temperatures of around 850 degrees Celsius (1,560°F) — the optimal temperature to efficiently combust waste and reduce levels of air pollutants. Plants should also be equipped with advanced smokestack filtration technology to eliminate emissions of dioxins and other pollutants.

An important aspect of waste-to-energy technology is feeding high-quality waste into the incinerators, which means sophisticated recycling programs at the household level, including the collection of food waste for composting. China’s recycling programs lag behind those of Europe and Japan, and so the waste stream in cities such as Shenzhen tends to have garbage with a higher moisture content — think discarded noodles dripping with oil, or old rice and stir-fried vegetables, instead of empty Big Mac boxes or stale baguette ends. The higher temperatures needed to burn garbage with elevated moisture content and more organic material means that incinerators corrode faster, with units needing to be replaced sooner. 

The chief goal of China’s growing number of waste-to-energy plants is to help alleviate the country’s massive solid waste problem, not to produce electricity. But electricity generation is a welcome byproduct. In 2014, China estimated that waste-to-energy facilities produced about 18.7 billion kilowatts of energy, or 1.2 percent of total renewable energy production. 

Cynicism among opponents is understandable, given the conflicts of interest around environmental protection in China.

Jiang Jianguo, an expert on waste disposal technology at the Tsinghua University School of Environment, said that since the latest emissions standards were adopted in 2014, dioxin emissions standards at China’s incinerators are on par with European standards. Where the difference lies, however, is the “relatively large gaps” with other standards like those for hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide, he said. 

Zhao Youcai, deputy director of the State Key Laboratory of Pollution Control at Tongji University in Shanghai, added, “There are times when there are some problems in operation where there will be a few hours of excessive emissions, but these are usually discovered and adjusted. Overall, there is a pretty good balance in how waste incinerators are operated in China now.” 

Among incinerator opponents in Shenzhen and other cities, such claims often fall on deaf ears. As I drive by a recently opened incinerator site in Shenzhen, white smoke billows from one stack while another emits nothing. My taxi driver, like many of those opposed to these projects, says they mainly burn at night when you can’t see the black smoke. 

“It is like baby milk formula,” he says. “The government says [Chinese milk powder] is 100 percent safe, but then why does everyone still buy milk powder in Hong Kong or import it from other countries?”  

Such cynicism in China is understandable, considering how many conflicts of interest often are involved around planning, development, and environmental protection in the country. For example, the company building the Shenzhen East facility is half-owned by the Shenzhen government’s State-Owned Assets Commission. The company was also found to have sold leachate, or liquid residue from garbage, to two disposal companies that later dumped it in nearby rivers in 2010, according to an investigation by Southern Metropolis Daily, a newspaper from nearby Guangzhou. 

In addition, the company’s president, who was also the Communist Party secretary of the district where the new Shenzhen East facility was approved, is soon to join the leadership of the city’s State Assets Commission and was previously a director of the city’s Development and Reform Commission. 

Such connections engender so much public distrust that even if China has the best incinerators in the world, it may never be able to persuade citizens opposed to these projects that they are the answer to the country’s solid waste problems.