Burning Unsorted Garbage Costs Beijing Billions in Health Care Costs

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Health issues linked to incinerating unsorted garbage in Beijing could end up costing the city nearly 28 billion yuan ($4.1 billion) in medical insurance claims by 2020, a team of researchers at Renmin University of China in Beijing found.

If current incineration practices were to continue, the cost of treating ailments linked to burning a ton of unsorted garbage would increase sixfold from 2015 estimates to 4,500 yuan in 2020, according to a report released Wednesday.

An effective sorting and recycling program, however, could cut those costs sharply, the scientists said. For example, hospital bills for diseases linked to dioxin exposure would drop 75% from 764 yuan to 187 yuan per ton of rubbish burned, the study shows. Such a system could have also cut the number of deaths linked to the cancer-causing chemical in 2015 by a quarter to 187, the study found.

Bigger cities in China have turned to burning garbage as they run out of space for landfill sites. The number of incineration plants across the country nearly doubled from 238 in 2010 to 514 in 2015, according to data from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s top economic planning body. Incineration capacity is expected to double by 2020 as more plants will be built in the following years. This means China will have the capacity by 2020 to burn 54% of its garbage, up from 31% in 2015, according to the NDRC.

China’s largest 246 cities produced 186 million tons of household waste in 2015, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Ninety percent of the waste was buried in landfills or sent to incineration plants without being sorted.

Beijing produced 7.9 million tons of garbage in 2015, statistics from the environmental ministry shows. And the Chinese capital plans to burn 67% of its household waste by 2020, up from 44% in 2015.

The scientists’ findings are based on data collected at three incineration plants in Beijing and details of eight other planned facilities, said professor Song Guojun, who led the research.

“Our before-and-after comparison of health costs involved unsorted and sorted waste strongly supports our hypothesis that sorting is necessary,” said the professor from the university’s School of Environment & Natural Resources.

Dioxins belong to the so-called dirty dozen — a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants, which can be found in the air, water, soil and even in the food chain.

They are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system and interfere with hormones in addition to causing cancer, according to the World Health Organization.

On top of health bills, incineration also costs local governments 325 yuan per ton of garbage, which includes subsidies for plant operators, according to the report.

Transporting a ton of garbage costs authorities another 1,164 yuan, it said. Recycling based on effective sorting can reduce the amount of garbage that ends up in incinerators by two-thirds and cut the overall cost of disposal by 64%, the study found.

By Yuan Suwen and Li Rongde

Caixin

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