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Trashy tales

October 23, 2017


IT’S got to be saying something when the high point of your day is the fact that you have seen not one, not two, but three garbage trucks on your daily commute. All in one day, all piled high with trash, offering a drop of hope in the ocean of despair that is the country’s trash problem.

Pakistan is in general drowning under the weight of the trash it generates and cannot seem to find a way of disposing of it correctly. This is not to say that this isn’t a global problem. The waste generated by humanity and its activities is rapidly filling up the oceans, poisoning marine life that mistakes particles of plastic for food and ingests them, and creating vast landfills full of material that will take thousands of years to break down.

Several developing countries have become dumping grounds for throwaway material coming from the West, where a number of countries are not just the top generators of waste — think about the layers upon layers of packaging used for everyday items in North America, for example — but also places where strict laws about what can be dumped where are stringently imposed. Thus, humanity adds to the environmental pollution that has just been identified (surprise, surprise!) as the cause of millions of deaths globally by ferrying around ships filled with trash to be cheaply ‘disposed of’ in countries where the rules and regulations are less strict.

We are drowning under the weight of the trash we generate.

Pakistan, by the way, is one of these countries — the recycling industry at Sher Shah in Karachi is underpinned by computer and electronic waste coming from abroad; workers earn their wages through it, of course, but that also means that unnecessary amounts of harmful chemicals present in the parts, such as cadmium and lead, leach into the environment.

But to come back to the issue of Pakistan’s own waste. The problem is all too visible in Karachi, where even the poshest of areas are home to vast mounds of garbage that have nowhere to go.

These continue to pile up until someone loses their patience with the city authorities and sets the garbage on fire. And then, of course, large toxic clouds of ugliness are generated. This being the situation in the more upmarket areas in the city, that which prevails in the less fortunate parts has to be seen to be believed. A much-talked about news photo a few years ago showed a boy diving into the Lyari ‘river’, the surface of which appeared to be not water or sewage or even anything liquid, but a huge morass of compacted waste, mainly that most evil of inventions, the plastic ‘shopper’.

Karachi has reportedly recently outsourced at least some of its garbage collection needs to a Chinese company, and in the area where I commute I have seen a few newly installed dustbins that have Chinese lettering on them. So did the trucks that I saw.

But I have been unable to find an answer to the greater question: picking up the garbage is one thing, but where is all of it going to go? From time to time, reports show up in the press that the landfills serving the city are full and, in fact, have been so for years. Waste that is taken there has to be compacted by bulldozers, and even then, it is set alight from time to time for whatever good that might do. But I have heard or read nothing about the establishing of new landfills; in any case, landfills are not a very efficient solution to waste disposal problems since they eat up greater and greater chunks of land around urban areas, and it takes years for the land to be rehabilitated for any other use.

Those who care enough about Karachi and the country’s garbage problem, though, can themselves play a significant role. To begin with, citizens can themselves fairly easily significantly reduce the amount of waste their own households generate — as a first step, by declining to use polythene shopping bags as often as possible. There may be a need to use a bag in which to carry home eggs, for example, but a loaf of bread — which, in many cases already comes wrapped in plastic — certainly does not require one. A reusable cloth bag or jute basket — remember those days? — can be used. Especially for those people who transport goods in a car or on a bike, a large carton makes better sense than polythene; at least it decomposes faster and can be reused.

Those with the awareness to see the problem need to make themselves responsible for at least some part of the solution. Ask yourself, how many times have you on city roads seen a hand reach out of the window of an expensive car to throw out an empty packet of crisps?

From time to time provincial governments have tried to ban polythene bags of various thickness; why does the citizenry not take responsibility?

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2017