After moving to Lahore from the US, one of the most disturbing sights I regularly witnessed were the plumes of smoke billowing from heaps of trash piled along the roadsides.
The practice of burning trash to get rid of waste seems to be ingrained in the national psyche. No amount of education, cajoling or pleading on my part has convinced the neighbours’ gardeners or the local employees of the horticulture department about the damaging impact of their actions on our health and environment.
Although a vigorous waste management programme has been introduced by the Punjab government, the lack of public awareness and weak implementation of the initiative resulted last year in the worst smog that the city of Lahore has witnessed.
Respiratory illnesses are on the rise, with lower respiratory infections accounting for eight percent of deaths nationwide. On a recent visit to Karachi, I was appalled to see that the situation is far more acute, with much of the city bearing an uncanny resemblance to a dump yard. As the population continues to rise at a steady pace, the amount of trash that we are producing seems to be increasing exponentially.
At the same time, Pakistan is also facing another crisis in the form of an acute energy shortage. The federal government’s promises of ending loadshedding by 2017 have turned out to be hollow as several rural areas face up to 15 hours of loadshedding during Ramazan.
A variety of solutions have been propounded in recent years to resolve these problems. These solutions include exploring alternative sources of energy – such as wind and solar power – and handing over the contract for waste management in Karachi to a Chinese company. However, each of these options has their own limitations – financial or otherwise.
After trying various conventional approaches, it is time to think outside the box. There is a simple solution to these problems: the use of waste-to-energy (WTE) technology. The basic idea behind this revolutionary concept is that trash collected from various parts of the city is burnt to generate heat and the resulting steam is used to turn turbines and generate electricity. Three tonnes of trash can produce as much energy as one tonne of fuel and 99 percent of the smoke emitted is non-toxic.
WTE plants can not only resolve the problem of trash disposal, but also provide a cheap local source of energy generation. Compared to the use of fossil fuels for producing electricity, WTE plants can considerably reduce our import bill. Moreover, they are considered to be much more environmentally-friendly. After ignoring the emissions that are carbon-neutral and those which would have been given off in any case if the trash was to remain in landfills, the carbon dioxide given off is less than half of the amount released from producing the same amount of energy through burning coal.
Sweden is one of the countries that are using WTE technology to its maximum advantage. Only one percent of its trash ends up in landfills. In fact, the demand is so high that Sweden is importing trash from other countries.
China has also made plans to develop more than 300 WTE plants – including the largest of its kind in the world. In the backdrop of CPEC, a Pakistan-Chinese collaboration on WTE plants can be considered, with China providing assistance with funding and technical know-how.
According to a World Bank report released in 2014 – titled ‘Cleaning Pakistan’s Air’ –“Pakistan’s urban air pollution is among the most severe in the world and it engenders significant damage to human health and the economy”. Instances of mortality related to air pollution exceed even those caused by traffic-related deaths. It is the need of the hour for the government to address the escalating health crisis. Setting up WTE plants is, no doubt, an expensive proposition. But, by the same token, constructing landfills in a country with an ever-increasing population also poses a major challenge.
Using WTE technology can potentially reduce our landfill volume by up to 90 percent. If materials such as kitchen refuse and biowaste are used as fuel, the amount of carbon emissions can be reduced significantly. In terms of solving our pollution problem, waste-to-energy is admittedly not a zero-waste method. Instead, it provides a useful starting point for a country like Pakistan that continues to neglect its environment.
The writer is a freelance contributor.