China to burn, not bury, as it tackles trash challenge

WUJIANG, China (Reuters) - Thousands of tonnes of urban waste are hidden behind scrubbed white walls at a new power plant on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Wujiang, with even its chimney disguised as a clock tower.

Desperate to fight mounting trash problems but wary of public opposition, China is building new incineration capacity designed to blend into its surroundings and limit environmental damage.

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Located in sparsely populated farmland around 60 miles (100 km) west of Shanghai, with white geese dotting the lake around it on three sides, the Wujiang plant is designed to burn 1,500 tonnes of garbage every day.

It generates heat to run turbines that deliver 500,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity to the power grid at preferential tariffs, around double those of coal-fired plants and the source of two-thirds of its revenue.

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China working on waste-to-energy challenge
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China working on waste-to-energy challenge
An employee works inside a newly launched waste-to-energy plant by Suzhou Wujiang Everbright Environmental Energy Ltd in Wujiang of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, November 8, 2016. Picture taken November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
A newly launched waste-to-energy plant by Suzhou Wujiang Everbright Environmental Energy Ltd is seen in Wujiang of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, November 8, 2016. Picture taken November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
An employee works inside a newly launched waste-to-energy plant by Suzhou Wujiang Everbright Environmental Energy Ltd in Wujiang of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, November 8, 2016. Picture taken November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
An employee works inside a newly launched waste-to-energy plant by Suzhou Wujiang Everbright Environmental Energy Ltd in Wujiang of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, November 8, 2016. Picture taken November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
An employee works inside a newly launched waste-to-energy plant by Suzhou Wujiang Everbright Environmental Energy Ltd in Wujiang of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, November 8, 2016. Picture taken November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
An employee works inside a newly launched waste-to-energy plant by Suzhou Wujiang Everbright Environmental Energy Ltd in Wujiang of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, November 8, 2016. Picture taken November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
Employees work inside a newly launched waste-to-energy plant by Suzhou Wujiang Everbright Environmental Energy Ltd in Wujiang of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, November 8, 2016. Picture taken November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
Employees work inside a newly launched waste-to-energy plant by Suzhou Wujiang Everbright Environmental Energy Ltd in Wujiang of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, November 8, 2016. Picture taken November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
Employees work inside newly launched waste-to-energy plant by Suzhou Wujiang Everbright Environmental Energy Ltd in Wujiang of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, November 8, 2016. Picture taken November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
A high-voltage tower, part of a newly launched waste-to-energy plant by Suzhou Wujiang Everbright Environmental Energy Ltd, is seen in Wujiang of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, November 8, 2016. Picture taken November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
A logo of Everbright International is seen inside their newly launched waste-to-energy plant in Wujiang of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, November 8, 2016. Picture taken November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
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"Combustion reduces the volume, turns it into a resource and detoxifies it, so we believe it is going to be a mainstream product within 20 years," said Cai Shuguang, deputy general manager of China Everbright International, which built the plant.

With land scarce and consumption surging, China has little choice but to burn as much trash as it can, said Cai.

The landfills encircling Beijing are known collectively as the capital's "seventh ring road", while throughout the country burial of untreated waste has contaminated land and built up potentially hazardous pockets of methane.

About 200 trucks dump up to 10 tonnes of trash each day in a silo 26 meters (28 yards) deep at the Wujiang plant. Toxic emissions are captured and little is wasted, with furnace slag recycled into bricks.

Everbright's first waste-to-energy (WTE) plant was built in nearby Suzhou more than a decade ago. China as a whole had 223 WTE plants by the end of last year, and that number could double by 2020.

But household waste treatment and recycling rates are still way too low, China said in a plan published in September, adding that industry spending would need to reach 192.4 billion yuan ($28 billion) from 2016 to 2020.

The plan aims to incinerate more than 500,000 tonnes of waste a day by then, or 2-1/2 times the 2014 figure. Better-off cities will have to burn most garbage, and curb landfill expansion.

"Waste-to-energy is being encouraged from top to bottom: subsidies are very high and profits far exceed those from recycling," said Zhao Youcai, a waste management expert at Shanghai's Tongji University.

TACKLING NIMBYISM

But China has struggled to reach previous targets, with daily incineration capacity of 235,224 tonnes by the end of 2015 missing a goal of more than 300,000 tonnes.

"The main reason is the level of understanding among local governments, and we also need to work on eliminating the problem of Nimbyism," Cai said.

Waste incinerators have provoked protest as communities worry about stench and the risk of toxic emissions.

Last week, the housing ministry vowed to toughen pollution controls and combat "Nimbyism" by offering cheaper water, heat and electricity for those living near waste projects.

Such moves would transform perceptions to "profit in my backyard" from "not in my backyard", the ministry said.

Related: Lebanon's trash crisis:

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Trash crisis in Lebanon
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Trash crisis in Lebanon
Rubbish is piles up around a tree at a temporary garbage dump north-east of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on December 21, 2015. The rubbish crisis began in July when the closure of a landfill caused rubbish to pile up on Beirut's roadsides, in parking lots and river beds. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK BAZ / AFP / PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Rubbish is piled up at a temporary garbage dump on a beach in Zalka north of Beirut on December 22, 2015. Lebanon's rubbish crisis began in July when the closure of a landfill caused rubbish to pile up on Beirut's roadsides, in parking lots and river beds. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK BAZ / AFP / PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIRUT, LEBANON - JANUARY 14: Anti-government protesters stage a demonstration outside the Environment Ministry in support of activists who were detained after staging a sit-in inside, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, on January 14, 2016. Lebanons trash collection crisis which set off huge protests in the summer is still festering, with no immediate solution on the horizon. (Photo by Ratib Al Safadi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A general view shows rubbish piled up next to a highway bridge at the eastern entrance to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on January 5, 2016. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
Youngsters walk past a temporary garbage dump in a suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on January 8, 2016. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK BAZ / AFP / PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - An Asian worker collects rubbish from Beirut's public beach, Ramlet al-Baida, on January 5, 2016. / AFP / PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A car drives past rubbish piled up next to a highway bridge at the eastern entrance to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on January 5, 2016. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view of the Lebanese capital Beirut from the town of Beit Mery in the Metn region on January 8, 2016. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK BAZ / AFP / PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A street cleaner collects dirt from the floor as he walks past a pile of garbage in the town of Jdeideh North East of the Lebanese capital Beirut, on January 2, 2016. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK BAZ / AFP / PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Lebanese civil society activist try to storm the Lebanese Ministry of Environment during an anti-government rally in downtown Beirut to protest against government policies to solve the waste crisis, on January 14, 2016. Lebanese riot police arrested around ten acivists as demonstrators tried to storm the Ministry of Environment in protest against the country's ongoing trash crisis. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
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INCENTIVES

China wants to remedy environmental damage caused by three decades of breakneck growth through incentives for private businesses to profit from environmental protection.

It now has fewer low-income "scavengers" to sort garbage in big cities, as rising living standards and falling prices of raw materials have blunted recycling incentives, Zhao said.

"Garbage mountains" and "garbage rivers" litter the countryside, where China aims to treat 90 percent of household waste by 2020. But officials say innovative funding mechanisms are needed.

Subsidy is not a sustainable path, so China must boost market participation, Zhao said.

"Garbage recycling relies on government, and waste-to-energy is subsidized," he added. "It is a bottomless pit: the amount is just too high and the profits too low."

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