China is Building the World’s Largest Waste-to-Energy Plant

March 4, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

waste to energy plant
Photo credit: Screen capture from video uploaded by Dezeen

It will burn nearly 5,000 tonnes of garbage every single day.

Many cities are struggling with the problem of too much trash.  Some places are transitioning into using more renewable energy and recycling, such as San Francisco aiming to be a zero waste city, but for others, burning trash has become a necessary evil — and China is about to build the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant.

By 2020, the same year that San Francisco hopes to become a zero-waste city, the Chinese city of Shenzhen will open the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant, stretching almost a mile across and burning roughly 5,000 tonnes of trash every single day.

That sounds like a lot of garbage, doesn’t it?  Shenzhen’s overloading trash has become a real problem — it’s landfills are at maximum capacity, so illegal dumps have been popping up all over the city.  Unfortunately, one of these landfills actually killed dozens of people last year when it unexpectedly collapsed.

But the plant won’t only burn trash, it will also produce useable energy.  The hope is that one-third of the burned trash will generate enough electricity to help power the city.  

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According to Adele Peters at Fast Company, the new incinerator is just one of 300 waste-to-energy plants that the Chinese government plans to build over the next three years. As you can imagine, there has been a lot of debate over just how environmentally-friendly burning all that trash is.  

“Waste-to-energy plants are not an energy solution,” Chris Hardie from Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, the firm that designed the plant, told Peters.  Although incinerating trash does cause pollution, the plant being built for Shenzhen will actually dramatically reduce the amount of pollution compared to a conventional city dump.  

The amount of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), emitted from conventional landfills is around double the amount CO2 released by incineration.  In fact, incineration eliminates the release of methane into the atmosphere.  As you know, methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

“They are a way of dealing with waste and using this process to generate electricity as a byproduct of the process. Cities have to move towards more recycling and reducing their waste for sure - and of course developing more sources of renewable energy. That is sort of the point we are making by proposing this be the first waste-to-energy plant that has a renewable component to it,” Peters said.

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The renewable aspect of this plant is that its roof, which will be nearly 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) long, will be topped with around 44,000 square meters of solar panels.  The idea is that the plant won’t just be about getting rid of trash, but also providing a clean and sustainable form of energy to power the surrounding city.

In fact, the plant will also be used to educate people about the waste process, and the public will be able to visit the plant, watch it in action, and even head to the roof to see the solar panels.

“The waste challenge is all about education - and experiencing the scale of the challenge is part of that education process,” said Hardie.  “Think of it like smoking in the 1950s and 1960s - everyone smoked. It was only until a civilisation became educated on how much it was polluting our own bodies did we dramatically stop. Waste is similar. If you don’t realise the damage it is doing, why stop creating waste?”

Ultimately, all cities need to reduce their waste.  And while burning garbage may be what some cities need to do right now, hopefully in the future they will all be zero-waste.

You can watch this video showing the design of the plant:


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