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.
This article has been published by Andreea Leonte in Foreign Policy.