A road to recycling

October 17, 2021

Despite being a planned city, Islamabad does not have a functional solid waste management mechanism

A road to recycling

Islamabad is one of the fastest growing cities in Pakistan. Despite there being much hype about it being a planned city, it continues to lack a functional mechanism for solid waste management that can meet its sanitation needs. Plastic is one of the most environmentally destructive materials in solid waste. It does not degenerate easily. It now constitutes a significant portion of solid waste in Pakistan.

According to a study by Dr Yasir Qayyum Gill, at the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore, “The total global municipal solid waste contains 10 percent plastic. Out of this only 14 percent is recycled, 40 percent ends up in landfills, 32 percent goes to oceans or land and 14 percent is incinerated.”

Gill adds: “Developing countries… have the highest plastic waste composition… India, Iran, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have 2 percent, 11 percent, 6 percent and 18 percent plastic waste, respectively.”

Jamil Asghar Bhatti, an Islamabad-based solid waste expert, who has been involved in United Nations environmental initiatives, tells The News on Sunday that Islamabad generates more than 1,500 tonnes of plastic solid waste on a daily basis.

The US Embassy in Islamabad has now announced a joint venture between CocaCola and the Capital Development Authority (CDA) to build a one kilometer stretch of road using recycled plastic.

According to a statement by the beverage manufacturer, “Recycling 10 tonnes of plastic bottles, CocaCola is all set to launch Pakistan’s first-ever Plastic Road Pilot Project (in Islamabad)”.

The carpeting of roads with recycled plastic has been a common waste management strategy in some developing countries. It is now being introduced in Islamabad.

The official document states: “Pakistan is the second-biggest producer of plastic in South Asia with an annual growth rate of 15 percent.” The benefits of carpeting the road with recycled plastic are also explained: “Roads re-carpeted with plastic last almost twice as long and are 51 per cent stronger than standard roads.”

The official statement by CocaCola goes on to explain that with a road network of over 270,000 kilometres, which is rapidly expanding, using recycled plastic to carpet roads in Pakistan will reduce landfill waste and keep road repair costs down, thus solving a major waste management problem.

“Once tested, the mixture can be used on roads across the nation, helping Pakistan achieve its SDG goals. Moreover, the roads are resistant to wear and tear, which can promote infrastructural development in the country.”

CDA’s Amer Ali Ahmed, the guest of honour at the launch ceremony, told TNS that the plastic recycled through this venture will be patented.

He said he believed that such initiatives could go a long way in making Islamabad clean and green.

On the flip side, a BBC report informs us: “The drinks giant produces about three million tonnes of plastic packaging a year - equivalent to 200,000 bottles a minute. In 2019, it was found to be the most polluting brand in a global audit of plastic waste by the charity Break Free from Plastic.”

Despite there now being a viable method of recycling plastic, it only constitutes 10-18 percent of solid waste generated by the city. Where will the remaining 80 percent plastic go?

“The total global municipal solid waste contains 10 percent plastic. Out of this only 14 percent is recycled, 40 percent ends up in landfills, 32 percent goes to oceans or land and 14 percent incinerated.

Recycling would obviously be most desirable. As population density in the city continues to rise, it will be inefficient to allocate land for landfills rather than real estate. Ironically, no landfills were designated during the first phase of planning Islamabad. In the beginning, solid waste was dumped in Sector I-14. Sometime later, without purging the land of that waste, Sector I-14 was developed for residence. Now it is a bustling area of the city. Due to water scarcity, many homeowners have installed pumps to use ground water. However, no research has been conducted to ascertain that the water is safe for human consumption.

For several years, the city’s waste was dumped in front of Sector G-11. The place now sports a metro bus track.

Solid waste is now being left in Sector I-12. The area has a high population density and the residents have been complaining about it. With the sector declared ready for construction of houses, the CDA has begun construction for a landfill site in Sector H-16, and parallel to it, Islamabad’s first prison.

People from nearby localities and housing societies have long been protesting against the construction of this landfill. They have appeared in public hearings and opposed the site allocation, arguing that the waste of the entire city should not be dumped here and protesting that the area falls under Rawalpindi jurisdiction. However, records from the CDA clearly show that the area is a part of Islamabad Capital Territory.

Their pleas might have had an effect. The CDA chairman has told TNS that the site under construction will only be used temporarily. He said a place at Mandra-Chakwal Road will permanently house the landfill.

However, the Mandra-Chakwal Road is at least 30 kilometres away from the city centre. The transportation of waste alone will thus have an astronomical cost. Furthermore, the Islamabad Expressway, which caters to about two-thirds of the city population, is already a traffic nightmare with a bottleneck at Karal Chowk. The absence of a bypass for the federal capital and conversion of heavy traffic from GT Road, its natural route, to the Islamabad Expressway have caused further congestion. Although a project is under way to ease the traffic, its construction has only aggravated the problem currently. How the CDA can afford to add to the load of traffic on this road is anybody’s guess.

Even though Sector I-12 is being used as a waste dump officially, fewer trucks actually bother to dump waste there. Open spaces along Soan River, Korang River, Lehtrar Road, and Islamabad Expressway are the alternatives untrained waste collectors find attractive.

Despite there being a fine for open dumping, the contractors find ways to avoid being caught. The waste is collected in tractor-trolleys, operated by the contractors who do not train their staff in the waste disposal protocols. The untrained collectors, usually hailing from far outside Islamabad, salvage usable waste with their bare hands and sell it for money later in the evening. The unsanitary working conditions result in frequent illness among these unfortunate workers. The housing societies that usually employ contractors with such working conditions care little about the treatment of these workers. Their main concern is getting rid of the waste in the cheapest manner possible.

The city is witnessing a flurry of development projects. Waste management seems to be the last item on the agenda.

The writer teaches development support communication at International Islamic University Islamabad

A road to recycling