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.