Ignorance leads to fears over burning

Waste-to-energy expert says worries over use of incinerators come from 'misinformation' and only serve to delay a sensible option for city

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 May, 2013, 5:05am

Most of the objections against incineration are unfounded or overstated, according to an international expert on converting waste to energy.

Professor Nickolas Themelis, director of the Earth Engineering Centre at Columbia University in New York, said the three common arguments against thermal combustion of solid waste were more perception than reality.

He said the problem lay in the availability of correct information and also people's willingness to listen to reason.

"Public misinformation is a real problem," he said, adding that "it only delays projects".

Themelis delivered a keynote speech at the International Conference on Solid Waste in Hong Kong yesterday, organised by Baptist University and three government departments.

He said the common arguments facing policymakers were that incineration reduced the recycling rate, that there were other better technologies in the pipeline and that it was intrinsically a threat to public health. Themelis noted that these arguments were also expressed in Hong Kong and he hoped his counter-arguments could be heard.

Hong Kong is among the league of places including Romania and Bulgaria where landfills are still the dominant or the only disposal option for more than three million tonnes of municipal solid waste a year.

A plan to build a 3,000-tonne capacity incinerator on a reclaimed site near Shek Kwu Chau is being legally challenged.

Themelis said most advanced nations with incineration tended to fare well in recycling.

He also challenged suggestions the city should wait longer for cleaner technology, such as gasification, to treat solid waste.

But he cited the experience of Japan, which was at the forefront of trying new technology, where 84 per cent out of 310 waste-to-energy facilities were of conventional moving grate technology which were proven and reliable.

As to the health hazards of incineration, Themelis said closer scrutiny of the performance of the existing plants found many of them met most national or international standards.

Umberto Arena, a chemical engineering professor at Second University of Naples, Italy, who also attended the conference, agreed that moving grate technology would be best for Hong Kong if it aimed to handle more than a million tonnes a year.

He said the city of Naples was facing a waste dilemma in which landfills were closed while its incineration plant had reached its maximum capacity. Currently, the city had to export waste to other European nations for burning on a daily basis.

Yeh Shin-cheng, deputy minister of Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration, said incineration was still needed despite the success of recycling.

He said zero waste was more a vision to go after than to realise. "Zero waste is impossible but we will get as close as we can to it," he said. But he also admitted that the success of Taiwan in waste separation and recycling had backfired as some newly built incinerators did not have enough waste to feed them.