SEE TO BELIEVE: Huang Xiaoshan, a Beijing-based lawyer fighting against his local government's plan to build an incineration plant around his community, is invited to a government-sponsored tour to survey the operation of Japan's incineration plants on February 22 (CFP)
As two of Beijing's 13 landfills have reached saturation and the remaining 11 are expected to be full in four years, a crisis in garbage disposal is around the corner for China's capital city. But city authorities are temporarily winning the race against time in finding methods to deal with the 18,000 tons of trash produced daily by the city's 17.55 million permanent residents.
"It usually takes five or six years to build a new refuse treatment plant from scratch considering the time needed for selecting an environmentally ideal site," Wei Panming, an official with the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment, told The Beijing News in June 2009.
Wei said it has become increasingly difficult to site new landfills in Beijing considering its rapid population growth. The commission estimated in 2009, based on a current annual growth rate of 8 percent, the city's total annual solid waste would reach a staggering 12 million tons in 2015.
Beijing's last trash crisis surfaced in 1983. Scientists using remote-sensing technology monitoring the city found it was besieged by garbage mountains. The scientists' mapping showed the belt between the city's third and fourth ring roads was dotted with innumerable dumps. More than 4,700 dumps covered 50 square meters or more. The crisis was eventually eased after the municipal government rapidly spent 2.3 billion yuan ($338.2 million) in building 23 waste landfills.
Alarm bells over an imminent waste management crisis were recently sounded by environmental campaigner Wang Jiuliang's photo collection. His works, titled A City Besieged by Garbage, won the top prize of an international photography competition in China's southern Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, at the end of 2009.
Spending more than a year motorcycling around Beijing to observe the city's most secluded dumping sites, Wang used his cameras to catch a scene of smoke rising from burning dumps darkening the sky against the background of a nearby residential community. In another photo, cows stroll between colorful plastic bags and scavenge for scraps on a landfill.
Many environmental experts worry that Beijing's operational landfills and more than 1,000 unmanaged dumping sites have greatly endangered the safety of the city's underground water. A three-dimensional geographical survey conducted by the Ministry of Land and Resources over the past four years (as part of the implementation of the massive south-to-north water diversion project, which will eventually transfer water from China's south to north), shows Beijing's underground water level will rise steadily to permeate 76 garbage-dumping sites and further pollute the city's drinking water.
To burn or not to burn
An important measure put forward by the city authorities to solve the city's chronic waste management problems is to tap the potential of solid waste incineration. The city is expected to increase its municipal waste incineration plants from one in 2009 to nine by 2015, says an ambitious plan of the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment. This is expected to boost the proportion of incinerated trash in Beijing from a total amount of 8 percent in 2008 to 40 percent in 2015.
Wang Weiping, a senior official of the city's Commission of City Administration and Environment, told Beijing Science and Technology News that solid waste's average heating value in Beijing, 6,800 kilojoules/kg, would allow it to serve as fuel in electricity production.
"More importantly, building incineration power plants saves 75 percent of land compared to landfill," said Wang, who regards this as incineration's most valued advantage behind its future replacement of landfill as the primary garbage treatment method in Beijing.
However, Beijing's multi-billion-yuan plan to build new waste incinerators is meeting strong opposition from community-based campaigns mounted by residents near the sites of prospective incinerators. The skeptics, some of whom are already victims of stench from operating garbage treatment plants, suspect that even if scientists can verify the safety of incineration plants, health hazards to residents in reality, mainly from cancer-causing dioxin emissions, cannot be eliminated. They back this citing possible negligence in operating the incinerators.
In one case, the Liulitun Incineration Power Plant in Beijing's northwestern suburb planned by the Haidian District Government as early as 2006, with an estimated investment of 1 billion yuan ($147 million), has been stalled indefinitely because of nearby residents' demands that the plant be relocated.
An anti-incineration movement is also growing nationwide as governments in many Chinese cities come up with plans to build new incineration plants or expand existing facilities to deal with the land shortage for landfill. In Guangzhou, thousands of residents in the Panyu District signed a petition opposing a plan to build an incinerator in their neighborhood in October 2009, despite the local government's guarantee the facility would meet state environmental protection requirements. The campaign pushed the local government to postpone site selection for at least a year and to promise to take residents' opinions into consideration when making a final decision.
Even Nie Yongfeng, a Tsinghua University professor and long-time supporter of expansion of waste incineration in China, admitted to 21st Century Business Herald the country's incineration plants that invest heavily in expensive equipment and rely mainly on government subsidies for profits sometimes have to secretly lower their emission standards to ensure operational profitability. He said although most facilities use imported equipment that is theoretically capable of putting out safe emissions because of an incineration heat of 850 degrees Celsius and the adoption of semi-dry absorption of hazardous gases, government environmental agencies have to conduct regular inspections on plants to ensure standard operation.
"Once-a-year inspections and infrequent sampling inspections by environmental watchdogs are not enough to ease the public's concern about the possible air pollution from incineration plants," Nie was quoted by the newspaper.
Mao Da, a Chinese scholar on European and U.S. environmental history, wrote for Southern Weekend in November 2009 that compared to landfills, incineration has a crucial shortcoming in that it prompts people to ignore their overconsumption of natural resources. This also inhibited people's exploration of alternative development paths.