The public has a strong resistance to such potential hazardous facilities as nuclear power plants and waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration due to their potentially negative environment and health effects, which leads to difficulties in siting their location. Exploring the public's cognition and acceptance of such facilities is therefore vital for the sustainable development of the potentially hazardous facilities industry. Based on four typical WTE incineration plants located in four central cities of the Yangtze River Delta, the current study evaluates the social acceptance of potentially hazardous facilities in developed regions of China by a questionnaire survey based on the ‘social license to operate’ (SLO) framework widely used in energy/mining sectors. The results show that the SLO of WTE incineration plants is relatively low and presents a clear dimension structure that shows differences with the change of cities. Enriching enterprises' SLO through the accumulation of social capital can help the public accept WTE projects.