GUANGDONG, South China — Li Zhixuan still remembers the billboard advertising natural beauty and fresh air in Longgang, a district on the outskirts of Shenzhen, a bustling tech metropolis in southern China and one of China’s wealthiest cities. “Here, every breath of air is addictive,” it read.
Li, a stay-at-home mom, had moved to Longgang with her family in 2014, but soon afterward she began to notice the pungent odor of waste when she opened the windows. The foul smell, she realized, was coming from waste disposal sites just a few kilometers from her new apartment.
With the district already home to several such plants, Li was informed that plans were underway to build China’s largest waste incinerator — and one of the largest in the world — not far away. Li and her neighbors were incensed. “Nobody wants to see truckloads of waste pass by their front door every day,” the 44-year-old told Sixth Tone.
As China’s population increases, so, too, does the amount of waste it produces. In a single day, China generates around 500,000 tons of household waste. To handle all this garbage, new incinerators are needed, but local governments have struggled to find sites that are far enough from residential areas to not pose safety or health risks but still close enough to urban centers that the waste they produce can be efficiently transported.
In Shenzhen, Li and other residents have started to push back against the construction of the gigantic, 4 billion yuan ($580 million) waste incinerator. “NIMBY” — an acronym for “not in my backyard” — has become their battle cry.
In the absence of a proper recycling system, waste-to-energy plants are widely considered the best option for dealing with waste. By burning garbage, these plants generate electricity, and the Shenzhen East Waste-to-Energy Plant, slated to become Li’s new neighbor, is designed to convert 5,000 tons of garbage into 3 gigawatt-hours each day — enough to power a million households.
Li Zhixuan poses for a photo in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Feb. 10, 2017. Li You/Sixth Tone
Scientists say advanced technology in emission control has reached a level that can curb airborne hazards. Wu Yanqi, the plant’s chief engineer, told a local newspaper that emissions for the new incinerator would be much lower than national standards in China and Europe.
But these assurances haven’t been enough to appease residents, as reports from elsewhere in China linking waste incinerators to an increase in a variety of health issues have left them suspicious. Some people living near incinerators have even reported strange rashes appearing on their bodies.
According to the government’s environmental impact assessment for the plant, the area within a 2.5-kilometer radius of the incinerator’s chimney is considered affected by the toxins it releases into the air.
Since the project was first announced, residents have taken to the streets and sent petitions to the government in hopes of halting the project. They’ve even hired a law firm and taken the case to court, where they are calling into question the approval process for the project and whether it faithfully reported public sentiment — one component of the mandatory environmental impact assessment.
Li has become one of the most vocal supporters of the lawsuit. “I told the lawyer to fulfill this goal by any means necessary,” she said, referring to blocking the plant’s construction.
Although the petitioners are far from stalling official ambitions for the incinerator, there has been some progress: In a December ruling, the court ordered the municipal government to release documents related to the plant’s approval. Shenzhen has appealed the decision.
Most prospective sites for the plant had to be ruled out due to their proximity to cities with which Shenzhen was not able to come to an agreement. The plot in Longgang, near Li’s home, was one of the last options.
Despite vocal opposition, construction began in 2016, with a state-owned company called Shenzhen Energy Environmental Engineering Co. Ltd. being responsible for the plant’s financing and construction. Residents of 11 nearby villages have been informed that they are eligible to claim annual compensation if they can provide documentation of land rights.
Yu Hanping looks through a window in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Feb. 11, 2017. Li You/Sixth Tone
Yu Hanping now qualifies to receive 8,400 yuan per year, and those who live closest to the incinerator are eligible for as much as 30,000 yuan per year. “We call it ‘medicine money,’” Yu said, adding that he expects the plant to cause health issues, and that he believes compensation has been promised to “quell opposition.” When 52-year-old Yu first heard of the waste incinerator, its sheer size left him flabbergasted. “It really scared me,” he said.
For the city government, the plant is the cornerstone in a plan to increase waste incineration from less than 50 percent in 2014 to 80 percent in 2020. In addition to being greener than landfills, waste incineration is well-suited for a country with such a large population, little unused land, and a developed economy, said Nie Yongfeng, an environmental science professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
While true, this does not change the fact that no one wants to live near a giant incinerator.
In 2015 alone, garbage incineration programs led to at least 20 protests, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Some of these protests have proven to be effective: In mid-2016, more than a thousand people gathered in front of a government building in Guangdong province to protest a waste incinerator. Afterward, the project was put on hold. And this month, another incinerator was canceled after a mass protest in Qingyuan, Guangdong province.
A man arranges protest materials at his home in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Feb. 11, 2017. Li You/Sixth Tone
Xu Haiyun, chief engineer at China Urban Construction Design and Research Institute, has researched the NIMBY effect and believes that it is the result of a credibility crisis for local governments. When it comes to waste disposal sites, he told Sixth Tone, “people don’t believe what the government says — that they have no [health] impact. They don’t believe the government can live up to its promises.”
Of the 231 waste incinerators in China, only 72 disclose their emissions data. And of those, 36 percent didn’t meet the national emission standard, environmental group Wuhu Ecology Center wrote in a report released in January.
That waste incinerator operators undercut one another in bidding for the projects only adds to residents’ concerns. In 2015, a state-owned company won a bid for a project in eastern China’s Zhejiang province by pledging to dispose of waste at a price of 18 yuan per ton — several times lower than the average waste incineration price of 65 yuan per ton.
Li Zhuoge, a manager at the Shenzhen East Waste-to-Energy Plant, called for better management and oversight of waste disposal facilities in an interview with state news agency Xinhua. “In our industry, achievements aren’t real until they can be enjoyed by everyone,” he said. “You can’t be righteous alone in a community where overall morale is low.”
When contacted by Sixth Tone, the plant’s management declined to comment for this story.
While waste-to-energy plants are greener than landfills, environmentalists believe the government should explore other options first. “There are actually more choices to begin with,” Sun Jinghua, a project director at Friends of Nature, told Sixth Tone, referring to recycling and better waste management.
A view of the construction site of the waste-to-energy incinerator, Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Feb. 11, 2017. Li You/Sixth Tone
Until these other options are put into practice, however, China’s waste problem will keep piling up.
As trucks and excavators prepare the land for construction, Longgang’s residents fear that their once-vocal opposition to the waste plant may be dwindling. “We may just have to accept that the incinerator will be built,” Yu said. “My eyes are on the project. As soon as they start burning trash, I’ll move as far away as possible.”
Editor: Denise Hruby.
(Header image: A worker stands next to a waste container at the Majialou Garbage Transfer Station in Beijing, March 30, 2017. How Hwee Young/IC)