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Don’t swallow the line that an incinerator is a necessary evil

SCMP – 23 March, 2012

On Monday, the Legislative Council panel on the environment begins listening to reports on the administration’s progress on waste management, which includes an update on its plans for an incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau. This has aroused opposition from various groups objecting to the location, which is on a site of natural beauty, and the type of technology, which they fear is expensive and will add to air pollution.

There have been calls for the use of plasma arc technology, which is cleaner and produces energy that can be sold, resulting in cheaper and more efficient waste disposal.

The Environmental Protection Department insists that plasma arc is not suitable for Hong Kong, and is only used in disposing of highly toxic waste in small quantities. Yet this flies in the face of abundant evidence elsewhere.

New York recently asked for proposals for a waste-to-energy facility that specifically excluded the kind of moving grate mass burn incinerator that the EPD wants. Plasma arc technology incinerators are either in use or being built in Shanghai, Hainan, India, Britain, the US, Mexico and Japan.

Meanwhile, Imperial College London is carrying out a survey of traditional incinerators on behalf of Britain’s Health Protection Agency after fears emerged over health risks, particularly for children. The study was commissioned after a high incidence of infant deaths among those living downwind from incinerators.

Another report shows people living in Detroit, the location of the world’s largest incinerator, are three times as likely to be hospitalised with asthma compared with the state of Michigan as a whole. The city’s asthma death rate is twice that of the state.

A study in the US shows plasma arc waste to energy projects can break even in terms of running costs when munching through 180 to 270 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day, and profitable if more waste is processed.

It seems odd that the EPD maintains the view that plasma arc can only be used for small quantities of waste while the US branch of its consultant Aecom appears to differ. “We believe that this technology is not only environmentally friendly, but ready for large-scale commercialisation,” says Aecom’s Mike Zebel in the US.

Why does Aecom sing a different tune in Hong Kong? Hopefully, Legco will get some answers out of the EPD and will not fall for its line that the incinerator is a necessary evil.

Talking rubbish

Looking through the papers on waste management submitted to the environmental panel, we came across one from the Hong Kong Institute of Architects. The institute’s considered wisdom is that the government’s proposed facility should “be a demonstration and education centre for sustainable development, incorporating sustainable lifestyle experience such as organic farming, organic food restaurant, swimming pool and spa, and education centre operated as a social enterprise”. And like the proverbial rabbit in charge of the lettuce patch, it urges that “the architecture of such facility should be of the highest quality”. More fuel for the incinerator perhaps?

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