China’s urban elite fights trash wars

Thousands of China’s urban elite took to the streets last year in protest against expanding garbage incinerators, angered by the threat to both their health and the value of their homes.

City residents in the capital Beijing and the relatively well-off coastal provinces of Jiangsu and Guangdong all came out in 2009 to try and block new constructions or expansions of incinerators, an annual review by one of China’s oldest and best known environmental groups, Friends of Nature, said.

“Health and safety are people’s bottom line. When they feel threatened, and there’s no other way to defend themselves, they protest,” said Yang Changjiang, a journalist and co-author of the fifth annual Green book of the Environment report.

Some of the protests are successful. The government in southern Guangzhou city put off plans to install one incinerator when hundreds of people demonstrated, demanding that the facility be relocated.

But China has already surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer of household garbage as increased prosperity brings increased consumption.

The government is struggling to find new ways and places to dispose of the growing heap of rubbish, the report said. With space already at a premium in a country struggling with a shortage of farmland, incineration is an obvious alternative.

Beijing and Guangzhou now generate around 18,000 tons of garbage per day, but only have capacity to process 10,400 tonnes and 12,000 tonnes respectively, state media have reported.


Protests included rallies, petitions, sit-ins, online forums and group efforts to dig into the financial affairs of officials who might be benefiting from any construction.

“We’re tired of what the experts and officials said,” one user of an anti-garbage-burning forum set up by residents of southern Guangdong province wrote. “We had no choice but to obey their decisions. It’s time for change.”

They are part of a sea-change in the nature of environmental protests that first gained widespread attention with efforts to block a chemical plant planned for the port of Xiamen in 2007.

Previously, most of those who challenged officials were farmers living with huge levels of pollution. The impact on their lives or livelihood was disastrous enough to outweigh the potential risks of taking on the government.

The concerns of the middle classes, about the future of their health or assets, brought a different kind of protest.

“Many people involved in 2009 cases are rich,” said Xie Xinyuan, project coordinator at Friends of Nature.

“They are able to hire people to do professional research and present it to the public. Or they are so well-educated that they can do it by themselves,” Xie said.

“People who live in less developed areas may also be harmed by the garbage crisis, but there is not so much they can do.” So far Beijing at least has stuck to plans for more incinerators, adding three by 2012, and a further four by 2015.

By then, 8,200 tonnes of garbage could be going up in smoke – much of it foul-smelling and potentially toxic – around the capital each day.

“I’m not optimistic about the situation this year,” Yang said. “Nationwide, 41 new incinerators will be built. It could cause some very serious problems.”


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