China produces more than a quarter of the world’s trash, a burden that the government is attempting to solve by burning some of it for energy. But the incinerators often mix waste with an even greater measure of coal, adding more global-warming gases to the atmosphere and toxic chemicals to the air of China’s cities, a recent report says.
China’s metropolises are growing far faster than their waste-disposal systems can handle, according to a March report [pdf] by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Incentives and pollution controls intended to create clean energy are doing exactly the opposite.
China is producing 250 million tons of household waste annually, and the pile grows at a rate of eight to 10 percent per year. Most is landfilled, but by 2030 the country wants to burn 30 percent of its municipal solid waste.
Energy from waste could help fill China’s burgeoning demand for power, which is expected to grow 77 percent by 2020. But with the industry in a disorderly state, the report said, “that sounds to good to be true.”
Some of China’s larger cities, like Guangzhou and Beijing, are served by sophisticated incinerators made by Covanta or Veolia that capture toxic emissions, said Elizabeth Balkan, a research consultant at Economist Group. But second-tier cities can’t afford such systems, and sometimes even the best machines have pollution controls turned off because they’re too expensive or troublesome to maintain.
Furthermore, Balkan said, waste managers in China don’t dry their solid waste as much as their Western counterparts do, meaning that trash is wet and needs to be mingled with coal in order to burn. Officially the plants are supposed to include no more than a 20 percent blend of coal, but in reality it is often 50 percent coal and sometimes as high as 70 percent.
“Such plants operate practically as small coal-fired power stations — exactly the kind of facility that Beijing wants to eliminate on public health grounds,” the report said.