By Poyi (Natalie) Leung
A growing population and small land area have posed many challenges to waste management in Macau, and therefore it is crucial for the Government to adopt the most mature technologies and most stringent standards for the control of toxic substances, a Beijing expert has warned.
Speaking to the Macau Daily Times during his stay for the 2011 Macau International Environmental Co-operation Forum & Exhibition (MIECF), Hao Jiming, professor and dean of the Institute of Environmental Science and Engineering with an expertise in hazardous waste management, of Tsinghua University, pointed out that the very first thing that Macau should do is minimise the amount of toxic waste and then make it harmless using a specialised process.
“Afterwards, if possible, [Macau can] cooperate with neighbouring cities such as Zhuhai to recycle the useful resources extracted from the waste [in the partner city],” he said.
“Electronic waste, for example, actually contains a lot of useful materials. But if it is not being treated properly, the heavy metals will significantly harm the environment,” he added.
The professor explained that to establish a production line to recycle used materials in the SAR is not practical, due to the limited land resources as well as the small business market that makes the industry difficult to earn a considerable amount of profit.
Unlike mainland China where places with low population density can be easily found, people live in ‘almost every corner’ of Macau and hence the treatment process of hazardous waste has to be done ‘with extra prudence’.
Hao has called on the SAR Government to use the ‘most mature technologies’ and the ‘highest standards’ in controlling toxic substances and chemicals generated by solid waste incineration, regardless of the costs.
“The Government needs to invest more resources in environmental protection which will definitely be worth it. While companies also have to perform their corporate social responsibility, the Government has the inescapable responsibility to take the lead in society,” the professor stressed.
City planning the key
The Infrastructure Development Office (GDI) confirmed to the MDTimes back in August 2010 that the SAR Government was looking for a new fly ash disposal site and that Coloane hill was one of the locations being studied.
According to Hao, it is unlikely to be able to find a site that is ‘the safest’, but one that is ‘relatively safe’.
Fly ash is one of the residues generated in solid waste combustion, containing trace concentrations of heavy metals and other substances that are known to be detrimental to health in sufficient quantities.
Being classified as hazardous waste, the Beijing professor said strict treatment standards are required to prevent secondary pollution caused by a fly ash landfill – which includes ground and surface water contamination and also airborne fly ash spreading to the environment.
As a result, when considering a new fly ash disposal site, potential impacts on underground water and air needs to be examined, Hao pointed out. In addition, residents and commercial activities cannot be located within a minimum of 300 to 500 metres from the landfill.
“The city is developing rapidly and houses have started to be built closer and closer to the landfill,” he said. “Reinforcing the city planning is necessary so that after a land parcel is decided to be used for burying fly ash, it won’t be easily changed and used for other construction or commercial development purposes.”
“Nowadays many problems are caused by improper and loose city planning where the urban area continues to expand outward,” he told the MDTimes.
The expert also pointed out that the 300 to 500 metres of land surrounding the disposal site is not of no use. “Macau also needs greenbelts and not only to build houses.”
After it was discovered that the existing fly ash landfill in Ka Ho did not meet safety standards over the past three years and people living or working around it may have been exposed to the toxic residue in their daily lives, a health survey conducted recently by a concern group showed that among the 244 students and teaching staff from the schools in the area, three reportedly had cancer, two had leukaemia, in addition to the others who said they had more than one type of illness or disease in the digestive system, nervous system or facial organs.
According to the Beijing professor, exposure to this toxic residue can trigger multiple health impacts but they vary according to the pollution channels – namely water contamination or airborne fly ash.
If exposed to this hazardous residue in ‘large quantity and for a long period of time – which differs between each individual’ through inhalation, Hao said the most severe consequence could be lung cancer.
But if it is a minor exposure, “people may experience tracheitis or feel like having a cold,” he said.
On the other hand, he said drinking water containing fly ash “is easily absorbed by the body and could cause gastrointestinal cancer such as stomach or liver cancer at worst”.
Yet, Hao believed that having fly ash induced leukaemia is unlikely.
“It has been found in Beijing that the most closely related cause of leukaemia to date is indoor renovation such as wall paint and coating.”
“Overall speaking the Government needs to follow a strict management system to minimise fly ash exposure to the public,” he added.
However, if people around the landfill are found to have suffered from a certain kind of disease or a higher proportion of sick people is reported in that area, Hao stressed that the first thing the Government should do is to analyse the causes and adopt a ‘proactive attitude towards the patients’ and to treat them.
Secondly, he said the Government should carry out an extensive check on landfill, find out if any secondary pollution exists, remove the safety loopholes and improve the management mechanism immediately.
“It doesn’t matter if the management service is outsourced to a company, the Government still bears the responsibility to make sure the company is doing the job well,” Hao reiterated.
Rapidly developing nuclear power
Hao, who also has expertise in nuclear energy, said the development pace of this low-carbon technology in the world has been ‘relatively fast’.
Despite having around 50 to 60 years of history, there are already approximately 500 nuclear plants globally with the largest number of them located in the US.
The massive March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that crippled the nuclear plant in Japan’s Fukushima has now made the world rethink the existing policy of this alternative energy source and even made China suspend approval of new nuclear projects amid safety checks.
“Countries have to build up a safety awareness and take into consideration the human-induced causes as well as natural disasters that may damage the power plants [when making development plans],” Hao said.
The power plant’s ability to resist earthquakes also needs review. “It now seems that being able to resist an 8 magnitude earthquake won’t be enough, the standard has to be raised to a 10 magnitude quake,” he added.
Moreover, the preference for a seaside location may need to be rethought as the facility is even ‘more vulnerable to tsunamis’.
The professor described nuclear energy as something that people ‘love and also hate at the same time’.
Undeniably nuclear power is a low-carbon technology, but natural disasters occur ‘sporadically and are uncontrollable, and once radiation leaks from the power plant, the consequences are irreversible’ he explained.
Nevertheless, Hao deemed that it is not necessary to halt nuclear energy programs, as long as they are developed ‘safely, prudently and moderately’.
According to the professor, Japan had been using relatively old nuclear technologies from the first or second generation. But apart from the need to use the latest technologies, employing sufficient nuclear safety experts, reinforcing management and construction planning are also prerequisites.
However, Hao pointed out that when China resumes its nuclear power projects, construction quality – “which has become poor in recent years” – is another aspect that deserves attention.
Currently about one percent of electricity is derived from nuclear power in China and Hao said that a certain proportion has to be maintained, adding that reaching a 10 percent level is ‘already very high’ for the country.
In his speech about the low carbon future of China delivered at the MIECF on Saturday, the Tsinghua University scholar warned that while China is at the stage of industrialisation and expected to overtake the US as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, “it cannot learn from the US and must act right now” to reduce its carbon footprint.
Apart from enhancing energy efficiency, improving the industrial structure, developing a safe and efficient transportation system as well as green energy, Hao said Chinese people need to change the ‘wasteful habits in their daily lives and consumption patterns’.
“At present China is wasting [resources] very seriously […] If people don’t act now while the country is still developing, it will be even harder in the future,” the professor cautioned.