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Mastering the world of waste

March 20, 2017

EVERYONE I talk to from Karachi is upset about the waste situation. It is both a health hazard and a major source of shame and annoyance for Karachiites. Dawn recently published a heartbreaking story about Shameem and Mohammed Umair losing their three children to a lethal fire caused by trash. We have reached a new low. Each day, Karachi generates 12,000 tons of solid waste, according to that article. Yet in 1996, it was estimated that only 6,450 tons of waste per day were produced. In 20 years, the figures have virtually doubled. How can we master this new world of waste?

Cities that are effective at managing trash are successful because they think about waste in a systematic way rather than looking at individual pieces of the puzzle. Waste cannot appear or disappear magically. It sticks around, taking on different forms, even when we burn it. This means we have to be smart at how much (or ideally how little) waste we create, how we recycle or reuse it, and then finally dispose of it. We have to examine the entire process.

We have total control as individuals on waste creation and handling. The World Bank’s What a Waste report (2012) notes that 50-80pc of waste management budgets of middle income countries are spent on waste collection. However, in high-income countries, this figure is only 10pc, despite citizens producing more waste per capita.


When it comes to waste reuse and recycling, there is a silver lining in Pakistan.


So what’s happening? The main difference is that communities play a crucial role in reducing the waste that needs to be disposed at the landfill. It’s up to us how much we generate, what we reuse and recycle within the home and how we dispose of it. Collecting waste in one container or disposing of waste in community bins, rather than just dumping it on an empty plot or throwing it on the street, makes it easier to collect and reduces pollution impact. It means that our creeks and waterways are not full of rotting garbage and plastic bags. Did you know that scientists estimate that plastic bags could take 500 to 1,000 years to degrade? We also need to stop burning trash, as this only results in polluting the air that we breathe. At the end of the day, it is only by each Karachiite walking the talk that we can start to clean up our city.

When it comes to waste reuse and recycling, there is a silver lining in Pakistan — our excellent informal system of recycling. The recycling of glass, newspapers, metal and plastic items is a way of ensuring that we minimise the actual waste we send to the landfill. This in turn allows us to build less landfills. However, we need to include recycling as part of the official system.

Sao Paulo state, Brazil, has been actively working to bring these informal waste pickers into the system through cooperatives. This also helps to ensure that recycling is more systematic and widespread. An added benefit is that we can ensure that children are in school rather than picking waste. Waste recycling and reuse can also be seen as business opportunities. In New York City, people have made fortunes by offering a service to entire office buildings to help with waste minimisation and recycling. Separation and management of hospital waste, which is typically hazardous to health, is another business. Many industries burn biomass waste (with strict environmental emissions control) to generate heat and power, termed co-generation, again minimising landfill waste.

Waste collection comes next. The common mistake is focusing only on collection, and not realising that waste disposal and financial management are inextricably linked with it. Typically, payments are made to trucks based on the waste they deposit, after weighing, at the landfill. If one pays the trucks based on collection, there is a tendency to dump the trash elsewhere and to come back quickly to pick up another load. If the landfill is really far away, then cities put in place waste transfer stations where the waste can be stored temporarily. In Karachi, an added challenge is the many different jurisdictions responsible for urban services. KMC, industrial estates, and cantonment boards are all responsible for providing urban services to different parts of the city. This requires massive coordination across jurisdictions, in addition to the incredible organisation and discipline required to collect and dispose of waste in a city the size of Karachi.

Lastly, safe waste disposal is important. Landfills need to be lined properly. Otherwise we create new problems, as pollution (leachate) seeps into the ground and poisons our water. As waste degrades, it transforms into methane gas, creating business opportunities for generating electricity. Since methane is a greenhouse gas, many cities have taken advantage of climate grant money to set up such schemes. It requires landfills to be built in cells with piping already inserted, to facilitate gas capture. To ensure financial viability of the business, deposited waste needs to be assessed for its methane generation potential and the business needs to be able to sell electricity generated back to the grid.

Looking at the world of waste it becomes obvious that, as in most things in life, it is about realising that circumstances change over time, creating new challenges. We need to tackle these challenges smartly but also make the most of opportunities, in this case for job creation. At the end of the day, Karachiites know better than anyone what needs to be done and how many of the options above can be utilised, or existing efforts scaled up, to clean up their city. It is also about everyone — from the provincial government to local bodies down to each one of us and our neighbours — playing a role. Ultimately all that should matter is the goal of a clean city. After all, wouldn’t you rather live in a clean city instead of a dirty one, and certainly one where no one should be worried about trash fires?

The writer is a former practice manager of the World Bank’s Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice.

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2017