Dirty industry cleans up its act
Near downtown Changzhou, a city of two million people in Jiangsu, one of the mainland's richest provinces, stands a grey and blue complex that from a distance can pass as a typical factory in eastern China.
Next to the main entrance is a man-made lake that is almost as wide as the factory itself. Surrounded by trees, with a fountain and pavilion in the middle, the lake provides a much-needed distraction from what goes on inside.
Every day between 3am and 5pm, around 800 tonnes of household waste are trucked in from around town to be burnt at a temperature of more than 1,000 degrees Celsius, in the process generating enough electricity to meet the needs of 800 households for one month.
The plant belongs to the nation's largest waste-to-energy projects developer, China Everbright International (CEI).
It works much like a power plant fired by oil, natural gas or coal, except the fuel is garbage. However, the energy value of household waste is generally only a quarter that of coal, and the incinerator itself consumes 20 per cent of the power generated.
Before being burned, the garbage is left to ferment and is drained of water - typically, a quarter of the weight of mainland household waste is water. After burning, the residue is treated and used for various by-products.
Outside the main entrance, the plant's emission levels, with each pollutant listed, are clearly set out on a liquid crystal display screen.
'Our plant meets the European Union's EU2000 waste incineration discharge standards, the most stringent in the industry,' said Liao Guoyong, the factory's deputy general manager.
'Our company is investing over 6 million yuan [HK$7.2 million] this year to install equipment that will see all our incinerators meet EU2000 requirement by year-end.'
He added: 'We welcome all kinds of outsiders to visit our plants all year round to keep up the pressure on our performance. In fact, the city party secretary lives nearby, so he also keeps an eye on us.'
But Changzhou, like many mainland cities, has a chequered past in its history of garbage incineration, with little treatment of emissions at two local government-built incinerators.
'The emissions were so bad that our throats were often inflamed during the new plant's construction,' said Chen Tao, CEI deputy general manager, who oversaw the new project, which was completed in 2008.
Meeting emission standards is key to long-term survival in the controversial business of waste incineration.
Operators of poorly managed or equipped plants have given the industry a bad reputation, by discharging high levels of fine particulates, heavy metals, and toxic and cancer-causing chemicals called dioxins.
Critics of the industry also fear it reduces the incentive for recycling and minimising waste.
On the mainland, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation means land close to cities that can be used as garbage landfills has become increasingly scarce. While incineration can solve the land issue, many proposed projects face stiff opposition from residents concerned about high rates of cancer linked to plants, as well as the stench surrounding poorly built and managed incinerators.
Last year, the Guangzhou government was forced to scrap plans to build two incinerators near the city centre, after protests from people living nearby.
After similar protests in other parts of the nation, Beijing stepped up regulations by requiring that emissions from all newly built incinerators be monitored real-time by the Ministry of Environmental Protection online.
Chen said the development of the industry was not being held back by a lack of funding and technology, but rather by the poor social responsibility of some operators.
'In this industry, you have people who are very conscientious and you have people who are downright irresponsible,' he said, adding that lax regulation remained a problem. 'Incinerator construction standards in our nation badly need improving.'
Chen said too often requirements were vague and went unchecked.
'It's like our plants are equipped with Mercedes-Benz gears while some of our rivals opt for Xiali [a low-end car].' He added: 'We both get similar fees for the garbage we process for the government.'
CEI, part of the financial sector heavyweight China Everbright Group, which is backed by the Ministry of Finance, hopes that by exercising self-discipline in ensuring its plants exceed local government requirements, it will build a good reputation and attract more business in a vast market.
Its main customers and partners are local governments in major cities, which can afford to pay high enough garbage-processing fees and power prices to justify the incinerators.
China has been the world's No 1 producer of municipal waste since 2004, and the amount is growing by at least 6 per cent a year.
To support the industry, municipal governments pay incinerator operators a fee for each tonne of garbage burned, and give them a relatively high price for their electricity.
For example, the Changzhou plant is given 85 yuan for each tonne of garbage, and enjoys a power tariff of 64 fen per kilowatt-hour, compared to 39 fen for an average coal-fired power plant in the area.
Shanghai's garbage-treatment fee is around 120 yuan a tonne.
The 530 million yuan plant is expected to take eight to 10 years to pay the investment back, Liao said. CEI earns an income from its construction, plus income from its operation for 25 years, after which ownership will be transferred to the city.
CEI has six operating waste-to-power plants in eastern China, and is building six more in Jiangsu, Shandong and Guangdong provinces.