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September 21st, 2011:

Recycling is key to waste management

South China Morning Post – 21 Sept. 2011

Refuse disposal is a problem for all cities, but it is especially troublesome for Shenzhen, one of the world’s fastest-growing. Just as in Hong Kong, landfills are near capacity and there is little room for more, so the government is looking to incineration to solve the problem. Three incinerators are planned by 2015, among them the biggest ever built, which together would handle 80 per cent of the almost five million tonnes of waste the city generates each year. In an ever more environmentally aware China, though, getting residents’ approval will not be easy, nor is putting so much faith in burning trash a responsible way to go about waste management.

Incineration should be only a small part of the waste solution, not the linchpin. At the heart of waste management has to be recycling, which Hong Kong has also failed to adequately tackle. If the experience of European cities is any guide, even the most efficient incinerators can only burn 70 per cent of rubbish, leaving a considerable amount of waste for landfills. This does not account for the air pollution created nor the inconvenience to nearby residents.

Putting in place an incineration programme so quickly would be unthinkable elsewhere. Usually, at least a decade should pass between the idea leaving the drawing board and becoming reality so that proper impact and environmental assessments can be carried out and public concerns addressed. Shenzhen’s authorities claim to have carried out consultations to find out where best to locate the facilities. If they want to avoid the protests over similar schemes in Guangzhou and a petrochemical plant in Dalian , they have to ensure the process has been thorough.

Authorities have to work with the interests of the people they serve in mind. Recycling, not landfills or incineration, should be the centrepiece of a waste disposal strategy. Making communities a part of the decision-making process is essential for their success. That requires public debate, transparency and long-term planning.