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November, 2013:

Howard Winn/SCMP: Air pollution continues to plague streets of HK; health costs pile up

Howard Winn, in his column for the SCMP, has tirelessly written articles for consecutive weeks to promote awareness over the continued poor state of air quality on the streets of Hong Kong; its slow but deadly and very costly effects on the health of Hong Kong’s citizens, especially children; and the lack of action and evidence of aptitude from the Hong Kong government in dealing with this matter:

How much longer for action on roadside pollution?

The Environmental Protection Department issued a statement yesterday morning pointing out that its air pollution indices at roadside air quality monitoring stations reached a “very high” level. However, turning to the Hedley Environmental Index (HEI), we see that it described air pollution over Hong Kong more graphically as being “very dangerous”.

The HEI is linked to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines which indicate the levels beyond which air pollution begins to affect health.

In Causeway Bay, the hourly concentration of nitrogen dioxide at 5pm was 259ìg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre), compared with the WHO guideline average level for a 24-hour period of 140ìg/m3 – i.e. 85 per cent over the WHO limit. At the roadside in Central, the nitrogen dioxide level was 338ìg/m3. The PM10 respirable particles were 99ìg/m3 and 105ìg/m3 at Causeway Bay and Central respectively, compared with the WHO short-term guide of 50ìg/m3.

Levels of the much more dangerous PM2.5 particles, which can enter the lungs, were also dangerously high at 65ìg/m3 and 61ìg/m3 in Causeway Bay and Central, compared with the WHO guideline of 25ìg/m3. These figures are way above WHO guideline levels.


Lund-Harket: Energy from burning waste? Bad news for the climate

from Sam Lund-Harket, writing for the World Development Movement:

On Dirty Energy Month’s Global Day of Action – Don’t Burn Our Future: Against Waste Burning and for Zero Waste. Mariel Vilella from Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) writes about the consequences of refuse dirived fuel projects.

Municipal governments throughout the world are facing choices about how to manage the unending stream of waste generated by their residents and businesses. In some places landfills and dumpsites are filling up, and all landfills and dumpsites leak into the environment. As populations continue to grow, the issue of waste becomes more urgent and more complicated. Many regions are already facing a waste crisis, and drastic measures are needed.

It’s a golden opportunity for private companies with “innovative” waste technologies, which they claim, will not only eliminate waste but will also generate energy. Some municipal governments, seduced by the idea that they will be able to turn their urgent problem into something of immediate value, have made the mistake of investing significantly in refuse derived fuel (RDF) projects, resulting in the burning of waste in incinerators, biomass plants, cement kilns, and other combustion units.

However, producing and burning RDF does not make household and industrial waste disappear, nor is it an energy or climate solution. The basis of the technology is incineration, and the burning of garbage – whether in “waste to energy” (WTE) plants, incinerators, biomass plants, cement kilns, or other industrial burners – involves an unsustainable consumption of natural resources, pollutes the environment, increases climate change, compromises human health, and seriously disrupts the lives of huge numbers of informal sector recyclers, specially in the Global South.

Moreover, despite burning RDF involves paper, plastic, and metals that come from finite natural resources such as forests, energy from incinerators is considered ‘renewable’. Even if plastics and tires are made of oil; incinerators, biomass plants and cement kilns burn them as ‘alternative fuels’, taking advantage of this blatant ‘green washing’. Not only this is a distortion of what should be deemed a sustainable, clean, and renewable energy source, it’s an extremely inefficient use of resources, as it requires an enormous amount of waste to produce a small amount of energy. Ultimately, burning these resources creates a demand for more “waste” and discourages the real solutions: conservation, redesigned packaging and products, reuse, recycling, and composting.

Countries like the UK, China, India or the US, are strongly supporting the production and burning of RDF through the application of renewable energy subsidies to these practices, amongst other bonuses for these industries. Take the example of the planned Barton Renewable Energy Plant in Urmston, Greater Manchester, which if built, it will burn 75% biomass and 25% RDF. Despite the fierce opposition of the local Council and community, the UK government has pushed its approval arguing the necessity to meet the Renewable Energy national targets.

In China, the energy generated by incineration is subsidized at the same level as solar and wind power, and 0.38% of the energy cost on-grid is covered by public funds.  A similar situation can be found in India, where government’s pledge to double the capacity for renewable energy without mentioning specific sources has been met with skepticism and controversy.  In the US, most federal energy subsidies that benefit incineration are actually meant to support the development of real renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and micro-hydro, which should not have to compete against dirty energy for the same funding. Read more on this here.

Investments are needed to think waste out of the system, but not through burning but through practical, bottom-up, decentralized strategies and urban solutions for reducing climate pollution and conserving energy and natural resources. These efforts go hand-in-hand with clean production, producer responsibility, and waste minimization programs for dangerous and hard-to-recycle materials. In contrast with the primitive idea of burning our garbage, recycling and composting create livelihoods, save money, and protect the environment and public health.

8 Nov 2013

GAIA: Waste Incinerators – Bad News for Recycling and Waste Reduction

from GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), October 2013 edition

Waste incineration undermines recycling. Rather than operating in tandem—where recyclables are recycled and only non-recyclables are burned—incineration and recycling typically compete for the same waste materials, the same government funds, and the same waste management contracts. This conflict is particularly clear in so-called “waste-to-energy” incinerators, and is also true for burners that do not recover energy. Despite the fact that incinerators are below recycling in the waste hierarchy, they are very often prioritized above recycling at the local level, and as a result, they have had a consistently negative impact on waste prevention and recycling efforts, as well as on workers who make a living from recycling.

Incineration is an expensive and rigid, technology-dependent, long-term waste management strategy. Thus, for many local governments, opting for this method means using all or most of their waste management budgets, leaving little funds for strategies such as prevention, recycling, and composting. Incinerators that produce some energy depend upon the materials in waste that have high calorific value, and the items with high calorific value are precisely the materials readily processed by recycling programs: paper, cardboard, and plastics. Burning these valuable materials is wasteful because incineration captures only one fifth of the calories in these materials, while recycling saves three to five times the energy due to energy savings from using recycled feedstock for manufacturing instead of extracting virgin resources.

When competing for the same materials, incineration tends to beat out recycling for several reasons:

1. Incineration contracts typically include a “put-or-pay” clause that requires the municipality to deliver a minimum quantity of waste or pay fees to compensate the incinerator company for lost profits. Put-or-pay agreements, which the incinerator industry typically includes in contracts, encourage the incineration of discards and undermine waste prevention, composting, and recycling.


GAIA: Incinerators – Myths vs Facts about “Waste to Energy”

from GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), February 2012 issue

INCINERATION is a waste treatment technology that involves burning commercial, residential and hazardous waste. Incineration converts discarded materials, including paper, plastics, metals and food scraps into bottom ash, fly ash, combustion gases, air pollutants, wastewater, wastewater treatment sludge and heat. There are 113 waste incinerators in the U.S. and 86 of these are used to generate electricity. No new incinerators have been built in the U.S. after 1997, due to public opposition, identified health risks, high costs, and the increase of practices such as recycling and composting. In recent years, the incinerator industry has tried to expand their sector by marketing their facilities as “Waste to Energy” (WTE), using misleading claims.

MYTH 1: Waste incineration is a source of renewable energy.
FACT: Municipal waste is non-renewable, consisting of discarded materials such as paper, plastic and glass that are derived from finite natural resources such as forests that are being depleted at unsustainable rates. Burning these materials in order to generate electricity creates a demand for “waste” and discourages much-needed efforts to conserve resources, reduce packaging and waste and encourage recycling and composting. More than 90% of materials currently disposed of in incinerators and landfills can be reused, recycled and composted.1 Providing subsidies or incentives for incineration encourages local governments to destroy these materials, rather than investing in environmentally sound and energy conserving practices such as recycling and composting.


Incinerators shown to be worst option; HK officials press with Shek Kwu Chau as ‘best option’

It is a bad plan that cannot be altered” – Publilius Syrus

Hong Kong officials are adamant about pressing ahead with the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator as the future for the city’s municipal solid waste treatment. After readers of the SCMP sent in suggestions to avert such a course, a representative from the Environmental Protection Department, Elvis W.K. Au, sent in a discombobulating response. It reads:

I wish to respond to the letters by Mary Melville on the disposal of food waste (“Environment-friendly fix makes molehill of food waste mountain [1]”, October 12) and Frank Lee on thermal waste treatment technologies (“Officials stick with outdated technology [2]”, October 24).

We have already examined the use of a food waste grinder. It merely transfers the food waste from the solid waste disposal system to the liquid waste disposal system without any enhanced treatment.

It would also increase both sewage pollution loads and the amount of sewage, with adverse impact on the existing sewerage network and sewage treatment works. The higher solid contents will lead to the need for higher sewer maintenance frequency and costs, as well as higher risks of sewer blockage.

Continue reading this absurd letter here:

Largest American landfill shuts down while HK plans to expand existing landfills

The largest American landfill, located at Puente Hills in Southern California, has been closed down.

While its closure has been an admistrative certainty – a decision made in 2003 – what made it possible is the recycling efforts that goes into sorting trash. In addition to residential efforts, privately-operated waste disposal companies operate their own recycling facilities, which ensures that the maximum amount of recyclables is extracted and exported for re-use in manufacturing. The landfill thus saw its input drastically reduced from 13,200 tons a day in 2003, to 7,500 tons a day in 2013 – a number that can be handled by alternative facilities, avoiding a ‘trash’ crisis when the landfill closed.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, officials are pushing to expand its existing landfills, paying lip service to the concerns voiced by nearby residents about the impact on their living environment. To make matters worse, their insistence in building an incinerator as the future go-to facility for trash disposal not only threatens to render recycling efforts redundant (since incinerators will need to take the recyclables and additional fuel to combust waste), it will continue to feed the necessity for landfilling, in order to dispose of the highly toxic ash produced at the end of incineration – an even more harmful substance to be landfilled than normal trash.

Click here to read the coverage:

Rift over aircraft emissions tax widens

Earlier this month, an agreement was reached at the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) conference in Montreal over a scheme to tax airlines for exceeding carbon emissions quotas. This was the result of a dispute between the EU, who wanted to impose its version of the carbon tax over non-EU carriers, and the non-EU countries who condemned it as an extraterritorial tax. While there was hope that it would be a roadmap for a comprehensive scheme to be written by 2016 and for airlines to comply by 2020, it is now threatening to fall apart: EU officials consider the agreement ’empty’ and the threats of foreign airlines and governments to be an assault on their own sovereign rights to legislate, and non-EU countries, already hesitant to ratify the agreement, is unhappy that the EU is about to disregard it altogether.

Read the coverage from Reuters:

Air pollution recognized as carcinogenic, also linked to prenatal development problems

The World Health Organization (WHO) has finally reported that air pollution causes cancer: vehicle, industrial and other forms of emissions fill the air with a toxic cocktail of chemicals and particulate matter. Meanwhile, the Guardian also reports that air pollution, combined with an environment of heavy traffic, increases the likelihood of babies being born with low birthweight, which leads to other health problems. With Hong Kong suffering from both problems, the government will need to put its foot down to improve the situation if it is serious about improving its citizens’ health.

When pollution strikes hard: Air quality in March 2010 (left), compared to better days. (WSJ)

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