China Is Burning Away Its Ecological Future

Chinese cities have a garbage problem — but incineration is no solution.

Two men walk through smoke from burning plastic waste in Beijing on January 11, 2012. (LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Two men walk through smoke from burning plastic waste in Beijing on January 11, 2012. (LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

China’s industrialization has put heavy pressure on the environment. For decades, China was the fastest-growing country in the world, powered by heavy industry that transformed it into the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The ecological degradation at home caused public outcry, but the desire to catch up with the West overrode that concern. The damage was so bad that over 1.6 million people in China are estimated to have died in 2013 from air pollution alone. According to a Greenpeace report, water pollution has also reached an alarming level, with more than half the water in major rivers in eight Chinese provinces deemed “unsuitable for human contact” as of 2015.

Today, China is attempting to reposition itself as a green power. After much criticism, the government publicly declared war against pollution, announcing its intention to create an “ecological civilization.” Traditionally, China’s pollution problem was caused by heavy industry. Now that China is ready to rebalance its economy toward a consumption-led model, it hopes to reduce the environmental burden. However, with cities as large as midsize European countries and a population eager to consume, China faces a new environmental dilemma: what to do with the municipal waste generated by consumerism.

As recently as the 2000s, the majority of Chinese still lived in the countryside; in 1990, just 26 percent of them officially lived in the cities. But decades of remarkable urbanization have, according to the China statistical yearbook of 2016, left 56.1 percent of Chinese living in cities. But with cities comes trash—as of 2004, China was already the world’s largest municipal solid waste generator, according to the World Bank.

In China, garbage is commonly handled via landfills (60.16 percent) or incineration (29.84 percent), and sometimes untreated discharge (8.21 percent), with the proportion of each shifting every year. Because landfills can no longer keep up with the demands of growing cities, incineration is on the rise. Some argue that incineration is more economically efficient, as it reduces the volume of waste after burning by up to 90 percent, while reducing the weight by 70 percent, thus saving a lot of land resources. Coupled with energy recovered through incineration, waste-to-energy power plants have spread throughout China’s new cities. Although the Chinese government has tried to promote such facilities as a clean way to get rid of waste, civil society has often opposed the construction of new incinerators, for fear that they will lead to even more pollution. Protests have broken out across China, in Hubei, Hunan, Guangdong, Hainan and elsewhere, against plans to build new incinerators.

According to the “13th Five-Year Plan on the Construction of Urban Domestic Waste Harmless Treatment Facilities,” China has promised to reduce the proportion of landfill disposal to 43 percent and increase the proportion of waste incineration to 54 percent, with 60 percent of the increase in trash incineration taking place in China’s densely populated east. The goal is to increase the incineration capacity to 442,200 tons per day by the end of the 13th Five-Year Plan. Some analysts estimate that the incinerated solid waste may even reach 591,400 tons per day in 2020, as opposed to 235,200 tons per day as it was in 2015.

On July 18, 2018, the Wuhu Ecology Center released its fourth observation report on the “Information Disclosure and Pollutant Discharge of 359 Domestic Waste Incineration Plants.” According to the report, China is currently host to 359 waste incinerators, distributed across 29 provinces, direct-administered municipalities, and autonomous regions. In private, experts say that by 2020, China will have about 500 incinerators, although this information has not been made public by any government official. On the other hand, the number of landfills is expected to peak at around 2,400, and then slightly decrease to about 2,000, as some of them will soon reach saturation point.

This is a potential environmental disaster. Waste-to-energy is erroneously promoted as a circular economy solution. The argument used is that the process of burning trash allows cities to recover some energy, while getting rid of the waste. But the real picture is more complex.

Incineration does not eliminate the waste, it only reduces its volume, creating about 0.3 tons of bottom ash for every ton of burned waste. Whereas 90 percent of the ash is nontoxic (bottom ash, collected under the furnace), the other 10 percent is considered hazardous waste (fly ash). The pollutant discharge includes leachate, boiler and economizer ash, grate siftings, air pollution control residues, and fly ash, and is created at various stages in the incineration process.

Waste-to-energy technology is not environmentally friendly, as it requires very high temperatures that in turn maximize the production of the pollutant dioxin, making energy recovery technologically incompatible with reducing dioxin emissions. Dioxin is a persistent organic pollutant that can easily get into the food chain and is highly toxic. Although sophisticated filters are used to prevent its release in the air, no available technology can stop dioxin formation, which is a natural result of combustion. Dioxin can be found in the fly ash, alongside other hazardous substances such as furans, heavy metals, and nanoparticles. The treatment of fly ash is thus extremely important. Even in the most technologically advanced countries, fly ash is mainly dumped in impermeable bags in special landfills, such as salt mines in Germany. Other countries try to stabilize the ash by mixing it with other substances, such as cement, creating solid blocks that can be used for paving sidewalks, in construction, and so on.

In China, the pollutant discharge is mainly treated by landfilling. According to the 13th Five-Year Plan, if a province does not have enough land for new landfills, the incineration residue will be stored in neighboring provinces, which will be “encouraged” to “build incineration residues and fly ash centralized treatment and disposal facilities through regional joint construction and sharing.” As the Wuhu Ecology Center report shows, this is a worrying situation. There are some regulations to control fly ash, but the implementation is, unfortunately, very poor. In many cases, the toxic ash is dumped alongside normal waste in landfills without any supervision or appropriate signaling. The report further says that China’s environmental law mandates that waste incineration facilities should be included among key pollutant discharge units and should actively disclose their environmental information. In practice, such information is not made available to the public and has to be actively sought.

Although tempting at a first glance, the energy recovery myth is dangerous for China. The current governmental approach gives a green light to an entire industry worth $16.3 billion that will need at least 15 years to recover their investment. Incineration is a short-term solution, capable of inflicting much more damage on the environment. Incineration does not eliminate the use of landfills. What it does, instead, is fill them with residue 10 times more harmful than regular waste that can lead to a much worse environmental crisis over time. Nonetheless, waste-to-energy investment sabotages cleaner industries based on “zero waste” principles and on the concept of circular economy.

As a rising tech superpower, China could invest more in research in order to develop its own personalized garbage treatment that does not require the use of incineration. Instead, even though China is reducing the number of industrial polluters, it now risks increasing pollution and contamination through incineration of waste, a byproduct of its new stage of economic development. However, in the absence of central and local authorities’ interest in developing and deploying environmentally friendly waste treatment facilities and of rigorous public education about recycling, it’s hard to keep Chinese cities clean without incinerators. Under the current approach, China is sacrificing tomorrow for the comfort of today, leaving the responsibility for the dream of building up an “ecological civilization” on the shoulders of the next generation.


Andreea Leonte is a fellow for China studies at the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific.

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