In China, people are protesting about the government’s rubbish policy on waste incineration

What to do with all that rubbish? EPA

Protests against a proposed waste incinerator power plant involving thousands of residents took place in southern China over two weekends in mid-September.

The demonstrations, in Boluo county, Guangdong province, were the largest yet against a project that has caused numerous smaller demonstrations since its environmental impact assessment was formally released two years ago. A government plan detailing the likely site for the plant was released in June this year, increasing opposition to the proposal.

Investment in waste incinerators is seen as a solution to the inability of China’s infrastructure to handle the mountains of trash the country produces. The number of incineration projects has risen steadily and by last year between 15% and 20% of the country’s household waste was burned. The government intends to double this to 35% by 2015.

As in Boluo, many of these projects also double as power generation plants. On the surface this seems ideal for a country that is not only the world’s largest consumer of energy but also its largest producer of rubbish, at about 300m tonnes per year. Because they generate power, the enthusiasm for waste incineration plants is also driven by financial incentives. One 2012 analysis said such plants could earn profits for up to 22 years. The Gao’antun plant in Beijing, the report said, earns up to US$16m from electricity sales annually.

Burning anger

But this energy source comes with other costs – and waste incinerator plants are meeting growing resistance. Based on my social media analysis, at least 20 projects have sparked protests across China over the past three years, although the actual number may be even higher. Protesters’ primary grievance is pollution. In Boluo, residents fear that emissions will cause cancer and that the local water source, the Dongjiang River, would be polluted. Their concerns are warranted.

Globally, the environmental impact of incinerators is somewhat debatable. In Sweden, where the government has said 99% of all household waste is recycled, of which 50% is burned at waste incineration plants to produce energy, the plants are not controversial. But in the US, proposals for new plants face significant hurdles due to opponents who argue they may worsen air pollution and harm recycling efforts.

Even if there was a consensus that such projects in well-regulated environments are safe, “well-regulated” is not guaranteed in China. Many of the country’s waste incinerators are built to extremely low standards and are run by operators who fail to properly dispose of toxic by-products. And while some facilities may be installed with the proper air-pollution control systems, these are expensive to operate and many plants do not use them. As a result, Chinese waste incinerators might serve no purpose other than to trade one waste pollution problem off for another.

Calls for transparency

In response to the recent protests, Boluo officials promised to listen to public opinion and have allowed the public three months to suggest alternative locations. However, because local residents have opposed the plant since the first public consultation period in November 2012, it seems unlikely that the new process will change things significantly.

Officials have offered guarantees to residents that the proposed plant at Boluo will be safe but residents question the government’s honesty, a situation that is indicative of a much wider issue in China: a fundamental lack of trust in officialdom. For environmental protests, much of the distrust toward government claims stems from a lack of transparency on the controversial projects.

The central government at least recognises transparency is an issue, and vice environmental minister Li Ganjie has called on local authorities to share more information with the public.

However, such “sharing” is only effective if the information is truly transparent. Boluo officials have arguably released enough information regarding the project and have gone through the motions of a public consultation process, but locals still do not trust the government’s word.

Added to this is the issue of conflicting environmental priorities between central and local government. For the central government, maintaining social stability is closely linked to the Communist Party’s legitimacy, whereas local government officials tend to prioritise social stability when it impacts on economic stability. Therefore local governments have a strong incentive to push ahead with controversial projects if they can rely on them as even a short-term source of revenue.

The ongoing events in Boluo, and similar protests elsewhere, are certainly disruptive in the short-term but their long-term effectiveness is more questionable. Even if protesters succeed in forcing a project’s suspension, they rarely force an outright cancellation. In the end the Boluo project may be relocated, possibly to an area where equally disgruntled villagers have less power. A solution of sorts, but one that leaves the fundamental issues unresolved.

The only way to persuade the public that projects such as waste incinerators do not pose environmental and health hazards is to start meeting higher standards. Perhaps this process has already started. In January this year, the government released revised emissions standards for major industries, including pollution control at municipal solid waste incineration plants.

Even so, this may not be enough to undermine unrest. Until China’s local governments prioritise the environment and social stability over short-term economic gain, the problems will persist and the proliferation of environmental protest will likely continue.

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