When China tries to tackle a problem, they often do it in the largest way possible. The latest example is the plan to build the biggest waste-to-energy plant on the planet. The incinerator, which is the most recent in the government’s efforts to curb environmental problems, will be a mile in circumference and eliminate 5,000 tons of trash daily.
This enormous incinerator is the first of 300 plants that will be built in the next several years. Instead of being an off-limits industrial building, however, the sleek structure will have a visitors’ center that explains how burned trash is converted into energy. The rooftop of the building will be covered in solar panels to further increase the incinerator’s effectiveness.
The plant is planned for the enormous city of Shenzhen. If you’ve heard the name before, it’s probably because Shenzhen has become the tech manufacturing capital of the world. It’s where Apple, Samsung and most of the world’s biggest companies have many of their products assembled.
The city’s success has come at a price with regard to the environment, though. Shenzhen, located just north of Hong Kong, was the second-fastest growing city from 2000 to 2010 and is home to more than 12 million people. It’s also one of the densest cities when it comes to population.
Shenzhen is an extreme example of the problems that China’s fast economic growth bring. With populations and consumer consumption on the rise, a number of environmental-related quality-of-life issues have cropped up. In Beijing and elsewhere in China, vast manufacturing and an increase in automobile ownership has led to unhealthy smog that sometimes shuts down the city.
Overflowing landfills are also a big problem for China’s largest cities, especially since many of these landfills are unregulated and don’t follow environmental standards. Officials have cleared out some of these sub-standard landfills, but demand is so high that putting an end to the trash is a Sisyphean task. Waste-to-energy plants are seen as a solution to this problem, but they remain somewhat controversial.
A long-planned solution
Shenzhen has been planning to build the world’s largest trash incinerator since 2011, when officials first said they were unable to deal with the trash created by the city’s rising population. Even back then, environmental groups expressed concern about the effect that such a large incinerator would have on air quality. The region is already plagued with abysmal air quality that’s becoming worse rather than improving, so it’s understandable why people wouldn’t be too thrilled with the trash incinerator.
However, people involved in the project insist that pollution generated will be less than what comes from the overfilled landfills.
“Burning waste naturally creates pollutants, mainly carbon dioxide — something in the region of one metric ton of CO2 per metric ton of waste,” said Chris Hardie, an architect for the firm designing the plant. “This does not sound great for sure, but when you compare it to putting the waste to landfill, one metric ton of waste will ultimately produce somewhere in the region of 60 cubic meters of methane as it decomposes — and this has more than twice the negative effect on global warming.”
The energy generated from trash incinerators is fairly negligible, as planners of the Shenzhen plant readily admit. The electricity generated is no doubt welcome, but incinerators are more about eliminating the waste in a fairly easy way that doesn’t require consumers to really change their habits. Think of them like a crash diet. They seem great for the short term, yet they’re not the best long-term solution for a healthy lifestyle. To really make a difference, habits need to be be completely changed.
A solution in the West
There are some alternatives to trash incinerators, yet they’re a bitter pill to swallow due to the widespread legislative changes needed to make an impact.
Across the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco is striving to be a “zero waste” city by 2020 and remove the need for landfills and trash incinerators outright. It’s an ambitious plan that has the backing of city and state officials. To reach this goal, a variety of legislation has been passed. Small plastic bottles are now banned. Hotels and restaurants are being targeted to generate less organic waste. Construction and real estate companies are also involved, as their debris and building materials have been an obstacle toward the goal.
What works in San Francisco might take a long time to work in a place like Shenzhen. San Francisco’s population is less than 10 percent of Shenzhen’s. The former is also much wealthier, despite Shenzhen having one of the highest GDPs in China.
Incinerators such as the one being planned in Shenzhen are something of a necessary evil at this point thanks to the city’s incredible growth. Incinerators are far from a perfect solution, but for the moment, they might be Shenzhen’s best option until the city is ready and able to change its consumption habits.