China's new threat - a mountain of waste

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 April, 2010, 12:00am

There's a new growth story in China - rubbish.

One man on the front line of the battle, in Guangzhou, says rubbish is piling up so rapidly that the city could soon be engulfed. Its main landfill, in Xingfeng, two hours' drive northeast of the city centre, is bursting at the seams and faces closure by the end of next year.

'We are dumping more garbage into the landfill than we should and it will run out of space before 2012,' said Dr Xiong Mengqing , director of Guangzhou's Solid Waste Management Centre. 'This is an extremely pressing problem ... I'm worried. We have no time to waste.'

While officials see the need to tackle the problem quickly, it is not that easy.

Building incinerators, which burn rubbish and produce electricity, is the preferred option for governments but city dwellers concerned about health risks and the negative impact on property values have mobilised against such projects across the mainland.

How to deal with the mountains of rubbish has become a key issue of social discontent in urban areas, mirroring the rural concerns about government land grabs. Protests by city property owners, aspiring members of the rising middle class, are a problem for city administrations.

The mainland is in the midst of the biggest and fastest urbanisation in history, having created an average of 20 new cities a year for decades. Millions have also moved to older cities in search of better economic opportunities. According to the Ministry of Urban-Rural Development, 622 million people, almost half of the mainland's population, were living in urban areas by the end of last year.

Urban rubbish has been growing alongside this phenomenal expansion. China has been the world's No1 producer of city rubbish since 2004, after overtaking the United States, and the amount of rubbish generated by its cities is growing by at least 6 per cent a year.

Beijing and Shanghai each produce about 20,000 tonnes of rubbish a day - enough to fill more than seven Olympic-sized swimming pools. Central Guangzhou generates at least 8,000 tonnes a day, with 7,000 tonnes going to the Xingfeng landfill and 1,000 tonnes to a four-year-old incinerator in Likeng, in the northern district of Baiyun.

The Xinfeng landfill, hidden away in a Maofeng mountain valley, is not easy to find without the help of locals. However, the stench that rises from it is a good guide. Gigantic blue rubbish trucks trundle busily up the mountain, followed by stray dogs looking for scraps.

Unsmiling security guards keep outsiders without an appointment away from the site and visitors are greeted with a heavy white fog of disinfectant.

People living near the Likeng incinerator, which cost 725 million yuan (HK$824.6 million) to build and produces enough electricity each year to light 100,000 households, also complain of foul smells.

'When the air is stuffy during summer, especially at night, I can't breathe, even with my windows shut,' said one 80-year-old woman who lives nearby. 'The smell of burning garbage is too disgusting.'

More than 60 incinerators have been built across the country in the past four years, with another 82 planned.

Construction at Likeng, Guangzhou's first modern incinerator, began in 2002. A second incinerator, twice as big, is being built next to it.

Locals have staged several big protests, blaming the incinerator for rising cancer rates in the area.

One woman in Likeng, whose neighbour died of cancer last week, said: 'You should have seen the size of his neck when he passed away. The tumour was almost the size of a watermelon. He used to be so healthy.'

The city government initially planned to build three more incinerators in central Guangzhou, capable of processing 6,000 tonnes of rubbish a day, by the end of this year. But strong opposition, spurred by horror stories from Likeng, has forced two of the plants to be scrapped.

The tug of war between government and residents over incinerator projects in Guangzhou has now spread nationwide, with complaints about black smoke, odours, noise and hazardous emissions everywhere in newspapers and on internet forums, alongside government assurances about the safety and efficiency of modern incineration technology. Landfills have also come in for their share of criticism.

In 2006, residents of the Jiangbei district in Nanjing , Jiangsu's provincial capital, protested against the construction of an incinerator and mobbed a venue where officials were conducting an environmental impact assessment for the plant.

After the Beijing Olympics in 2008, more than 1,000 people living close to the Gaoantun landfill in the capital's Chaoyang district launched protests. A year later, the city government's petition office had received 1,158 e-mails and 26 letters signed by more than 20,000 residents complaining about pollution and the foul smell generated by the rubbish, Xinhua's Economy and Nation Weekly magazine reported.

Last month, Guangzhou's city government bowed to public pressure and said it would allow monitoring of operations at the first Likeng incinerator. But that concession was not good enough for Likeng's 7,000 residents, who say cancer deaths rose sharply after the incinerator was built about 300 metres from their homes. Of the 60 people currently diagnosed with cancer, 45 say they have lung cancer, with a few claiming they have only months to live. In the 12 years before the incinerator opened, only nine local people died of cancer.

Scientists have long warned of the array of chemical substances including dioxins, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals that can be generated by waste incineration.

In 2007, Huang Ningxuan, Liu Baojian and Li Wenqing, from Shaanxi University of Science and Technology, wrote: 'Many of these are known to be persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic. These three properties make them the most problematic chemicals. Some of the emitted chemicals are cancer-causing and endocrine disruptors.'

Another problem they highlighted was fine particulate matter, 'a main cause of a number of respiratory diseases'.

'No matter how advanced the incinerators being built, it's impossible to avoid emitting toxic substances and ash, which cause potential hazards to the environment,' they said.

Earlier research by Sun Dong , Wang Yucai and Xie Chunmei , from the China Academy of Engineering Physics, said that burning one kilogram of urban solid waste could generate between 11 and 255 nanograms of carcinogenic dioxins, and burning a kilogram of plastic could generate 370ng. A nanogram is a billionth of a gram.

Many academic journals have documented evidence that dioxins are one of the world's most toxic substances, and Sun, Wang and Xie urged governments to keep incinerators away from areas with large populations to reduce exposure to pollutants.

The Guangzhou Health Bureau has dismissed the villagers' claims as groundless and argued that all emissions from the incinerator meet national safety standards.

Professor He Guowei, of Guangzhou University's environmental science and engineering faculty, said none of the claims made by either side was scientifically reliable.

She said assessing a project's environmental impact required systematic research of scientific data collected over a long period and it was too early to establish if there was a direct connection between the incinerator and villagers' soaring cancer cases, or a foundation for the officials to rule out such a connection.

Xiong warned that if the second Likeng incinerator did not go ahead as planned, it would be impossible to speak of building any more incinerators in the future, because opposition would only get stronger.

'So for now, we'll build one when it's possible because our rubbish crisis has reached an extreme stage,' he said. 'If we allow the Likeng project to fail, there would be a far-reaching adverse impact.

'Whether [Likeng] is suitable to accommodate another plant processing 2,000 tonnes of trash daily is another issue, as it depends on an environmental impact assessment report.'

He said that if the villagers blocked the second incinerator, the money invested and the land acquired would be wasted.

'It's not about [political] determination any more,' he said. 'It is something we must do because we are being pushed into a corner now. We must unite residents to work towards a way out.'

The middle-class residents of Guangzhou's Panyu district appear to have won their incinerator battle - at least temporarily. Once they learned of plans to build an incinerator nearby, they refused to take any chances with their health or real estate values and staged aggressive protests. As a result, the plant was put on hold until local government officials identify a new site next year.

Guangzhou is now looking into the possibility of building an incinerator with a daily capacity of 1,500 tonnes as well as a second landfill of about 66 hectares at Xingfeng, The Southern Metropolis News reported.

Incinerators have fallen out of favour in Western countries, but many mainland officials argue that properly built and managed modern incinerators can actually cut the total amount of pollutants emitted in big cities when compared with those emitted by substandard incinerators.

Xiong said the people of Likeng had been forced to sacrifice their right to develop real estate and enjoy a clean and healthy environment.

'It's OK so far in the first five years, but who knows what's going to happen 20 or 30 years down the road in Likeng after 3,000 tonnes of garbage are processed every day?' he said. '[Likeng residents] should be compensated for their loss.'

Up in smoke

Since 2004, China has been the world's No1 producer of city rubbish

More than 60 incinerators have been built across the nation in the past four years. It is planned to have another: 82