Managing the waste

August 15, 2021

The prevalent solid waste management practices in the country do not allow for an appropriate disposal of waste

Managing the waste

“Another #FridayMorningWalk, another two bags of litter. Safaai nisf imaan hai (cleanliness is half of faith)”. This tweet by Christian Turner, the British High Commissioner to Pakistan, was posted with pictures of waste collected by him during an early morning walk in the hills in May. It triggered an online discussion on the littering behaviour and the lack of provisions on the part of the authorities. Why should a foreign diplomat have to pick the rubbish that we throw on our own land?

It’s embarrassing, to say the least. Worse, it is only when incidents like this occur that the debates on important issues such as waste management start. It is estimated that Pakistan produces around 20 million tonnes of solid waste every year. The amount is growing at a rate of approximately 2 percent annually. The lack of a proper waste management infrastructure means that domestic waste is burned or dumped. The prevalent solid waste management (SWM) practices in the country do not allow for the appropriate disposal of waste. This leads to environmental hazards.

Landfill sites have not been properly developed either. In some other countries, there are accessible guidelines for the development of landfill sites. For example, in the United States, regulations for municipal solid waste landfills (which use synthetic lining) are laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency. These include location restrictions, composite liner requirements (to protect groundwater and underlying soil from leachate), operating practices and groundwater monitoring requirements, among others.

In Pakistan, sanitary landfill sites are sealed using clay at the bottom to separate the waste from the environment.

A sanitary landfill site was opened in Lakhodair, Lahore, in April 2016. It was then described as the only scientific landfill site in the country. The site was constructed by Turkish firms with experts from the Istanbul municipality monitoring early operation. However, according to some reports, the site has not been utilised properly and has since been turned into a dumping ground.

A major part of the waste problem can be attributed to behaviour patterns and mindsets. Some people are happy throwing rubbish on the street, out of their car windows or outside the boundaries of their houses, anywhere as long as it is not in their area. There is little recycling and reuse of waste. There is a considerable lack of awareness of the environmental and health hazards. The burning of solid waste contributes to these hazards. Additionally, untreated waste and waste water are polluting rivers and groundwater.

Countries across South Asia have much higher levels of organic waste compared to most Western countries. Some of them have developed local solutions to deal with waste. For example, Sri Lanka, under its national waste management programme, has made provision for composting sites and bins for local authorities, biogas plants for hospitals and other institutions, alongside increased awareness and education on managing solid waste, particularly waste segregation. Such provisions for managing waste are not common in Pakistan. Universal household waste collection services are not provided by local authorities. Even with waste collection in private housing societies, there is no proper SWM system, with most of the waste going to undeveloped landfill sites.

The daily waste from a single union council can ruin an acre of land. But, with proper management and composting, union councils can daily bring an acre of land back to life.

The Akhtar Hameed Khan Memorial Trust (AHKMT) has developed an SWM model at the union council level. It segregates waste so that it is not just dumped. In a webinar hosted by Urban Innovation, Hameed Ullah of AHKMT explained how the model, known as e-guard, works to minimise waste. According to Hameed Ullah, in Pakistan, 60 percent of the waste is organic, which can be used as compost; 25 percent is recyclable, such as paper, plastic, glass and metal, which is sold and recycled easily; and 15 percent is reject waste, for which they are still trying to find a solution. Household waste is collected and brought to an Integrated Resource Recovery Centre (IRRC) to be sorted. There is one centre per union council, each requiring one and a half kanals of land. Waste from around 3,000 households is segregated at the centres (organic, recyclable and reject) and processed accordingly.

This model can be implemented at the neighbourhood level in each city. Waste from fruit and vegetable markets can be separated and go straight into compost; industrial waste can be dealt with separately. Universities and private housing societies can also execute the model.

It has been suggested by some critics that the e-guard model cannot be scaled up. If the model is replicated across the country, it will automatically scale up. The small scale feature is what makes the model effective. Initial costs are low. In each local area, only a small parcel of land is needed to establish an IRRC. After installation of equipment, the facility is self-sufficient, covering its own costs through the sale of recyclable material and compost. The technology used is fairly simple, i.e. aerated box composting. The IRRC is located within the waste collection area so that operational and transportation costs are low. It can also provide local employment.

Segregation enables the optimum use of the waste and minimises the amount going to the landfill, thereby making land available for other purposes. The waste from a single union council can ruin an acre of land daily. But, with proper management and composting, a union council can also bring an acre of land back to life. The organic waste is used for animal feed or compost providing nutrients for the land, reducing the need for chemical fertilisers. Recyclable material can be sold to the garbage collectors or industry. The business element of the model helps cover the costs.

Working towards a circular economy, in which waste is primarily reused or recycled, presents an opportunity for innovation and the emergence of new businesses. It provides a blank canvas for ideas to take shape, especially for the majority youth population in Pakistan. An increasing international trend has been “upcycling”, giving new life to old items or waste material through creative reuse and transformation; again an opportunity for new businesses. The informal recycling sector is already thriving and can be incorporated in order to retain their income.

Community mobilisation is an important aspect of the model as the process of waste collection and disposal takes place within the locality. Educating and training the community can sensitise them to the hazards associated with waste disposal, and encourage them to think about their own consumption and waste levels. A change in behaviours and mindsets is desperately needed. Simple examples include taking reusable bags when shopping, or buying refills instead of new plastic bottles. Waste management is not only an issue of governance, but of consumer behaviour as well.

The public sector in Pakistan has been unable to implement an effective SWM system that responsibly disposes of waste. Governments have relied on outsourcing to foreign companies and expensive solutions, rather than adopting an indigenous model. Solid waste management in the Korangi and Central districts of Karachi is now set to be outsourced to Chinese and European companies.

The private sector can therefore step in. But, the involvement of local authorities through a facilitation role is vital, for example in the provision of land. Most people are willing to pay for waste collection if such services exist. However, a policy shift is needed. This needs to start with small cities. Waste is being generated daily but not managed properly. If this issue is ignored, it can become an environmental disaster.

The writer is a researcher interested in urban development issues. She is currently working at Atomcamp and can be reached on Twitter @NidaMahmood5

Managing the waste