The Dirty Truth about China’s Incinerators
incinerator at a plant in Qionghai, Southern Hainan province of China (Image: Corbis)
Xie Yong could be called a pioneer. He is one of very few to date to sue a Chinese government agency over its unlawful refusal of requested data. His crusade for change has little to do with civic altruism, however. Xie’s struggle is personal in nature, his actions forced by desperation. He has been battling his son’s paralysis-causing epileptic seizures and mounting health care costs since 2010. His son’s condition, Xie believes, is the result of toxic emissions from an incineration plant near his home. —– During Ma’s pregnancy and in her son’s first two months of life, the family lived a short distance from the local trash incineration plant. The facility’s odorous emissions were constant, but neither Ma nor Xie understood what risks they might be facing. Shanghai Xinhua Hospital determined that Yongkang’s disease was not genetic, but caused by environmental factors during Ma’s pregancy. —– China now generates over a quarter of the world’s garbage, at least 250 million tonnes annually. With municipal solid waste (MSW) growing 8% to10% annually, cities are under great pressure to deliver advanced waste-management solutions. Landfills currently handle roughly half of China’s MSW, while only about 10% is incinerated. Official credo suggests that landfills will continue to play a dominant role. But Beijing’s push to increase the share of burned waste is unmistakable: a central target calls for 30% of MSW to be treated by waste-to-energy incineration by 2030. —– China’s incinerators, though canonised as a “clean energy,” have a dirty underside. Thermal waste treatment plants are subject to emissions regulations considerably looser than those for power plants. Legally, they can emit nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide at, respectively, four and five times the levels of power plants in China. —– Weak regulation and misaligned policies, combined with an absence of public emissions data, make for a truly toxic incineration sector.