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The fire-starters

Forceful academics – dubbed the “incinerationists” – are promoting waste-to-energy plants in China. But, says Meng Dengke, winner of the “investigative journalism” category in the China Environmental Press Awards, these experts’ corporate links are raising doubts about their motives.

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This article was originally published by Southern Weekend on December 3, 2009.

Cartoon by Liang Weichi

As controversy over waste-incineration projects has raged across China, Nie Yongfeng, a professor at Tsinghua University’s department of environmental science and engineering, has come to represent the “incinerationists”, or garbage-burning lobby, in the public eye. Now at the centre of the debate, he finds himself accused of supporting the technology for his own benefit.

It seems Nie does not have the time to worry about such suspicions. “I’ve been busy preparing two reports, and I’m going to Japan on Wednesday,” he said, when contacted by this paper. Last week, he repeatedly refused a more in-depth interview with the Southern Weekend on grounds that he was “too busy”.

However, organisers of the Advanced Forum on Solid Waste Industry are expecting his attendance in seven days time, when he will give a speech on “the application and future development of technology to handle airborne incineration ash”.

This is the third time that the forum is being held. It is run by website solidwaste.com and Tsinghua University’s Department of Environmental Science and Engineering, but all the signs indicate it is not purely an academic event.

Organiser Peng Hong says: “We invite some government officials, the heads of several major design institutes and experts such as Nie Yongfeng and Xu Haiyun for free. We charge some companies, small engineering institutes and research bodies.” Attendees pay a fee of 2,000 yuan (US$293), not including food or accommodation. “We’ve already got over 300 companies and other bodies signed up,” says Peng.

During the two-day conference, representatives of all interested parties will have the chance to make a speech. But, apart from invited officials and experts, speakers will have to pay a fee of at least 18,000 yuan (US$2,636). According to Peng Hong, this is “great value for money”. “Registration alone at a conference specifically for overseas solid-waste firms would normally cost 18,000 yuan, let alone making a speech,” she says. “So far more than a dozen people have applied to speak, including waste-furnace manufacturers from Japan and Europe. And the list is still growing.”

The organisers even offer “tailored services” for major customers, where they set up small-scale meetings with business figures, experts and officials. Charges for this are “agreed in accordance with the company’s specific needs”.

All of this money goes to an organisation called Beijing Golden City Science & Technology Development. “We’re a private firm, founded by academics from Tsinghua University, with a background in government environmental protection,” says Peng.

Information from the Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce reveals that the company’s legal representative is Fu Tao, who is indeed deputy professor and researcher at Tsinghua’s Environmental Management and Policy Institute, deputy head and secretary of the national environmental services chamber of commerce and also chief editor of water-industry website h2o-china.com, which just happens to be a “sister site” to solidwaste.com.

Sighing when he hears this, one environmentalist says that – despite monitoring the sector for some time – he had understood solidwaste.com to be a government or NGO website. “Many more people are likely to make the same mistake, particularly among the general public,” he says.

Perhaps these financial arrangements are the norm among the wide range of forums that take place in China today. But the controversy surrounding waste incineration has led to particular suspicion over this event.

The majority of experts on the organisers’ list are “incinerationists”. Alongside Nie Yongfeng are Xu Wenlong, director of the China Urban Construction Design and Research Institute (CUCD), and the body’s chief engineer, Xu Haiyun. “There’s no need to listen to the speeches because you know they’re going to speak in favour of incineration – obviously the website is just their mouthpiece,” says Zhao Zhangyuan, a retired professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Zhao is seen as one of the leaders of the anti-incineration lobby, but he was not invited to take part in the forum. “I’m against incineration, so of course they couldn’t have me speak to all of those companies,” he says.

Institutes or companies?

The anti-incineration lobby sees Tsinghua’s environmental-science department as the enemy’s home camp. All public support for the technology appears to have some link back to the centre. Nie is considered the pro-incineration authority and Peking University professor Liu Yangsheng and CUCD’s Xu Haiyun – who together set the standard for a 300-metre exclusion zone around incinerators in Beijing – are both Nie’s former students.

Nie’s current and past academic titles are numerous: director of Tsinghua University’s Solid Waste Pollution Control and Utilisation Institute; head of research at a centre under the State Environmental Protection Administration; deputy chair of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences’ solid-waste committee; and consultant on environment and sanitation to Beijing’s municipal government. The list goes on.

He also has another, often-overlooked, role as head of the solids office at the Beijing Guohuan Tsinghua Environmental Engineering Design and Research Institute (or “Guohuan” for short). There, he is responsible for approving technical documents for the institute’s engineering contracts.

Recently, this institute has been embroiled in problems stemming from the environmental-impact report for a waste-to-power plant at A Su Wei, in northern Beijing. Ms Che, a volunteer from the nearby neighbourhood of Aobei, told me something surprising: Nie’s institute is not actually qualified to carry out environmental-impact assessments.

Although its website proudly displays certification from the Ministry of Environmental Protection saying it is allowed to carry out such reports, closer inspection reveals that the certificate actually belongs to Tsinghua University and its department of environmental science. “But the head of that department, Xu Gangze, made it clear to us that the A Su Wei report was nothing to do with them,” says Ms Che. “He knew nothing about the project.”

In reality, the certificate is used by an “environmental-impact assessment office”, headed by deputy head of the department, Wang Chengwen. But, according to its deputy, Yang Weiguo, “The office doesn’t physically exist.”

So what is the link between this “office” and the Guohuan institute? Southern Weekend’s investigation found that the “institute” is not actually a scientific body at all. Its full name is “Beijing Guohuan Tsinghua Environmental Engineering Design and Research Institute Co. Ltd” And its legal representative is none other than Wang Chengwen. On the website, however, there is no indication that it is a “company”. It is simply presented as a research institute.

Yang Weiguo admits that Guohuan itself is not accredited to carry out these assessments, saying that the certification belongs to the environmental-impact assessment office, and that “there is overlap in personnel between the office and Guohuan”.

There are secrets behind this name confusion. Southern Weekend obtained a memo to Guohuan, dated August, 2009, from the owner of the A Su Wei project, Beijng Huayuan Huizhong. The document says that Guohuan “Agrees to your company’s (Huayuan Huizhong’s) method of jointly presenting the environmental-impact report as having been completed by Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Meterological Sciences.”

Residents near A Su Wei have been waiting for Tsinghua to respond to their concerns since August. “We’ve been in touch with the assessing body three times, but we still haven’t seen the expert who wrote the report,” says Ms Che.

Further investigation uncovered Tsinghua’s involvement in a similar case several years ago. In 2001, the State Environmental Protection Agency suspended Tsinghua’s certification for three months after two reports from the previous year were rejected by an expert committee due to “a lack of evidence for conclusions, incomplete engineering analysis and poor quality”.

Beijng’s Gao'antun waste-to-energy plant has come in for even fiercer criticism. The incinerator has been conducting trial operations since July 2008, in spite of the fact its environmental-impact report – again produced by Guohuan – has not yet been accepted.

One environmentalist is blunt: “It is not just Tsinghua that is causing this confusion in the solid-waste sector. Many so-called “institutes” or academic bodies are engaging in corporate activities.” And the non-expert public is often taken in.

But the influence of these experts goes even further.

The 7th Solid Waste Advanced Salon, held in March, 2009, is often brought up by opponents of incineration. The event was also organised by Tsinghua’s department of environmental science and solidwaste.com and included the familiar faces – advocates such as Nie Yongfeng, Xu Wenloing and Xu Haiyun and, of course, dozens of company representatives.

This meeting caused particular uproar due to some of the hard-line views expressed: the public are ignorant and obstructionist; the media reports are confused and sensationalist; the government should make full use of the legal system to put an end to local disruptions in the interests of the wider good, if necessary relocating residents rather than the incinerators.

The theme of the meeting was “strategic consideration of and suggestions for waste processing in Beijing”. The public initially thought it was an academic meeting but the views expressed were one-sided, with a distinct lack of dissenting voices. Just five days later, Beijing released plans for more incinerators, ending more than a year of silence on the matter that had followed the Liulitun incident.

“It shows their power to influence policy,” says one environmentalist. “And that’s the reason the incineration firms flock around the experts.” Indeed, Nie Yongfeng, Xu Wenlong and Xu Haiyun also sit on the expert committee at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development that is largely responsible for setting industry standards for waste incineration.

In 2007, Beijing set a requirement for a 300-metre safety zone around incinerators. Critics said this figure had been chosen specifically to allow the Liulitun plant, where the nearest residential area is about 500 metres away, to go ahead. Zhao Zhangyuan fiercely opposed this move at the expert hearing: “It started off at 1,000 metres, then changed to 800 and then 700. This impacts public health and safety and we need long-term observation to confirm mathematical models.” An impassioned argument broke out between Zhao and proposer of the changes – Nie Yongfeng. The 300-metre limit was not passed at that meeting but several months later it nevertheless appeared in government documents.

The “incinerationists” do not limit their work to influencing government policy. Sometimes, they also help the government persuade the public. While there might be nothing wrong with that, the public have gradually come to see the experts as the “troublemakers”.

Public anger at the choice of experts to attend a press conference about an incineration plant in Panyu, Guangdong, in October 2009 led to a walking protest in November. One of the experts, Shu Chengguang, is vice president of the China division of US firm Covanta Energy. Covanta is the world’s largest waste-to-energy firm and has a poor reputation back in the United States. Two years ago, it began making vigorous efforts to break into the waste market in the Pearl River delta.

But it is not the expert support for incineration that makes the public most angry, it is the doubts about why they are offering that support. And so far, those doubts have not been answered.

Needless to say, Nie Yongfeng was one of the four experts at the Panyu press conference. Angry citizens started looking into his background and found that he had applied for a patent for a type of domestic-waste incinerator in 2000. As soon as this fact was revealed, he was accused of being an “interested party”.

One member of the public, Mao Da, who has a doctorate in environmental history from Beijing Normal University, became interested in the history of Nie’s academic research.

Mao found that, between 1995 and 1998, most of Nie’s articles were about prevention of pollution from landfill. In 1998, he wrote in a paper for China Solid Waste Management and Reduction that “Development of incineration in China is limited due to the large investment needed, high running costs and strict operational requirements.”

But after staying silent throughout 1999, Nie made a u-turn. In “An Investigation into the Development of China’s Urban Waste Incineration Technology”, he wrote that “Incineration technology reduces the quantity of waste, makes it harmless and turns it into a resource. It is one of the first choices for rubbish processing in China . . .and will become the main technology used for handling waste in China’s major cities and coastal centres.”

Mao Da describes the year 2000 as a watershed for Nie’s research. It was also the year he applied for the incinerator patent and the public cannot help but link the two. A look at the research of several “incinerationists” shows that they have made similar academic journeys: starting out with fairly conservative views on incineration but, at some point, suddenly changing their academic stance.

Dedicated netizens found 25 patents filed with the national intellectual-property office bearing Nie’s name, the bulk of them connected to waste incineration and all applied for after 2000. And, as the number of patents increased, Nie’s pro-incineration stance hardened.

While many members of the public are happy to accuse Nie of taking advantage of his academic position for profit, Mao is more careful. “The moral accusations are speculation but, at the least, he hasn’t been scientific,” he says.

“You would expect these so-called experts to be locked in debate. But they’re all in agreement, it isn’t healthy,” says Zhao Zhangyuan.

Zhao, whose background is in water environments, has been accused of “not being a specialist”. But this retired professor has become a leader of the anti-incineration camp. “There is no shortage of officials and academics with different opinions but few of them speak out,” he says. He cannot understand why.

But it seems no amount of obscure academic debate or exposure of these experts' vested interests can halt the rapid advance of the incineration industry. Advocates of incineration say that 2008 to 2015 will be a golden age for waste-fired power generation. The public suspects that the real beneficiaries will be these experts’ wallets.

Meng Dengke is reporter at Southern Weekend and winner of the “investigative journalism” category in the China Environmental Press Awards, jointly organised by chinadialogue, The Guardian and Tencent.

This article was originally published by
Southern Weekend on December 3, 2009.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


(由Jieping Hu翻译。)

important points here

Striking article. Scientists backing new technologies should always declare their interests so that the public can make informed judgments and trust the information they are given. Otherwise you just end up breeding cynicism and a loss of faith in the, by and large, honest majority.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



What happened to those professors of Tsinghua

I'm curious about what has affected professor Nie in this article. As far as I know, the Environment department of Tsinghua University is still very popular . It's hard to say if academia is still existing in China. The bad result of the educational reform is now spread everywhere. The issue of burning rubbish is just a very limited part of the big problem.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

















Consider How One Feels After Reading this Book

(93) Building a Green Society, (Shanghai Translation Press, 1st edition published 09/2002

It's already been a few months since I finished this book. While I was reading it, China was facing a storm of domestic garbage problems. The source of this storm was by no means limited to one area; it was present in Beijing, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Guangdong, and was related to garbage incineration in particular, which provoked much discussion and movements from top to bottom.

Judging by the action taken, it seems to be the case that residents of areas near planned incineration facilities all took some kind of action, embodying public participation in environmental protection. Moreover, this public participation certainly does not appear to have been led by local authorities, and it led to a number of instances of "marches" and other such affairs.

During this period, every so- called expert, and spokesperson for one interest group or another also took to the stage, with the result that we couldn't see exactly what was best for the public. Due to this, it was only natural that the experts advocating incineration were the objects of a "human flesh" search. The only expert who opposed incineration- Yuanzhao Zhang, a researcher from the National Environmental Science Research Institute, had already retired, and hints came from all directions that he was no expert on the science of air pollution control.
However, this uproar by no means subsided, as every level of government still supported incineration, and so a see-saw war was formed.
However, to their credit, the Guangzhou municipal authorities had already placed due importance on the issue of sorting garbage, and began to turn towards the implementation of specialist management of kitchen waste. Despite this, the public were still surrounded by incineration facilities and areas designated for such use by local authorities.

I am definitely unwilling to discuss other content from this book, but I do want to talk about my experience after reading the chapter on the garbage crisis.

--- The crux of the problem with incineration lies in the conflict between the increasing amount of garbage, the speed at which it is increasing, and urban sprawl. The department responsible for dealing with this problem is the Ministry of Construction, and not the Environmental Protection Ministry;

--- Resolving the garbage problem is like a game of chess between the Government and the public. Although it can be defined as a game of chess, a way of solving the problem which is acceptable to both sides can still be found;

--- Most of the experts participating in the incineration debate are technology specialists, rather than policy experts, or garbage history experts. Basically, not one of them is has engaged in long- term observation of garbage management and disposal technologies, policies, and dynamics abroad. What passes for the understanding of dynamics abroad amounts only to reading the literature, and a superficial, unsystematic process of study.

--- The social stability problems spawned by garbage incineration should be classified as problems of social control. The promotion of awareness of, and gradual long- term resolution of the problem should be embodied in the use of modern principles of social control.

--- Garbage incineration does in fact produce a number of substances such as dioxins, which can cause cancer and other illnesses when absorbed into the human body via digestion. Such environmental danger has already been proven by a large number of research institutes abroad, and needs no further discussion;

--- While dioxins and other substances can be burned at high temperatures, by the time dust collects into reactive oxides, emissions are very low, but these amounts are by no means comparable to the amounts produced by the public in daily life;

--- As I understand the stability problems caused by garbage incinerations, the public is dissatisfied with the stink caused by transporting and burying garbage for short periods, which lies entirely within the realm of garbage management and disposal. Responsibility for the resolution of this should be taken by the Ministry of Construction and other related departments;

A plan to resolve the garbage problem based only on summary of the books I have read and the dense media coverage follows.
(1)All levels of government and the Ministry of Construction must place due importance on the problem of garbage sorting in order to reduce the amount of real garbage produced. There is already strong and clear evidence that kitchen waste and other organic waste comprises approximately 50- 60% of total waste.

First, with regard to the North and South of China, comprehensive use of high- temperature fermentation and other methods can be made to produce field crops, vegetable seeds, as well as fertilizer which can be used to cultivate plants. In this way, the author of the above book states that he believes that the amounts of rubbish emitted can be reduced by 80%.

Taipei in Taiwan has already attained reductions of 60%, and the domestic Wanke experimental factory has realized reductions of 40- 50%. It is only predicated on this that the use of landfill sites and generating power by incinerating garbage is feasible. Considered objectively, based on this, a moratorium on the construction of garbage incineration power plants or a reduction in the number built should be
an important principle of the 12th Five- Year Plan;

(2) Of course, it's not necessary to tolerate waste. when land is being surveyed, some areas may be suitable for the construction of incineration facilities. However, this is by no means to say that incineration is a more efficient use of land than landfill sites, if we act according to the principle of distancing such facilities in the name of public safety used by incineration facilities abroad;

(3) Now for a concrete way to resolve the incineration problem: First, we should consider incinerations facilities from the perspective of the public. They should be fundamental elements in the composition of a city or its surroundings, and should also be categorized as one of the fundamental facilities of the city. Viewed from this angle, every kind of city park, administrative office, green space, and area important to ecological protection can be considered as such. So, it is appropriate that incineration facilities are placed next to the administrative facilities.

This way, we can assume that, with incineration facilities being built next to governmental administrative offices, garbage transportation, short- term burial, abnormal emissions problems and other management-related issues will be managed most severely, most consistently, and that emissions of dioxins and general foul odour will be minimized.

I believe that most urban residents would agree with this, thus resolving the problems of public participation; actually, the source of this problem has long since been researched abroad. It is "not in my back yard". A plan to resolve this problem has already appeared in Shanghai, where it has been found that that although a cellphone signal amplifier only emits one twentieth as much radiation as a cellphone, people are not willing to have one built near their house. The government response was to build all of these amplifiers near government facilities, thus resolving the problem.

In the same way, if incineration facilities can adopt the most stringent supervisory measures, and emissions can be reduced by so much, in what way is this inferior to resolving the problem by the use of force? This is also the book's advice.

I feel that it is imperative that the the details of dioxide emissions technology, as well as the assessment and discussion of environmental risk from this book are given a platform in the media.

(Translated by Ruaridhi Bannatyne)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Comment 3

Comment 3 is very impressive.
In addition to his profound analysis, it is more important that the proposal is quite effective and practical to implement. The example of Shanghai is also very persuasive. Moreover, the English translation is excellent. I'm so pleased to see such high level Comment Translators working for China Dialogue!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Our Concern

Professor Zhong Nanshan has discovered through a large number of investigations that fine particles that are smaller than 5㎛ affect human body the greatest, and those that are smaller than 1㎛ can enter into pulmonary alveolus. And the incineration technology specialists tell us that, at present our country can filter out 99.67% 1㎛particles. Then, can particles ranging from 0.1 to 1㎛ be filtered out? Yet we have no answer for this question. However, the fact being that these particles have few weeks of half-life period and able to float a few hundreds to thousands of miles has caused people’s great concern.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


日本 德国 美国 希腊
77 24 14 0

- 日本 德国 美国 希腊
1999年 270 214 161
2001年 239
2004年 242 253 188 162
2008年 268 183




Waste incineration and cancer rate increase

World waste incineration rate (%)

Japan Germany USA Greece
77 24 14 0

World cancer mortality rate (per every 100.000 people)

Year Japan Germany USA Greece
1999 270 214 161
2001 239
2004 242 253 188 162
2008 268 183

Is it true or not that 4 years ago some English experts in human reproduction calculated that in ten years 1/3 of European and American couples will be unable to have children?

Therefore we have do our best to stop waste incineration.