Trash left over by tourists at Lake Saiful Muluk | Photos provided by the writer
Trash left over by tourists at Lake Saiful Muluk | Photos provided by the writer

Litter. Whether it is outside our houses on the streets or at scenic spots for tourists, it is an eyesore wherever we go. Whether it is the Deosai National Park in the mountains, the Hawkes Bay beach of Karachi or simply an ATM vestibule anywhere in Pakistan, more often than not you see the space apathetically strewn with litter, often next to empty or semi-filled dustbins — clearly there’s more to the problem than installing more bins. Littering is a habit deeply entrenched in our social mores.

In a step toward curbing environmental pollution, the Ministry of Climate Change recently announced a complete ban on plastic bags in the capital city of Islamabad to come into effect from August 14, 2019. This commendable move will play a significant role in reducing littering and its implications on health and the environment. Yet we need to take a deeper look at the problem. Why do we create so much litter and how can we mitigate the root cause?

With each passing year, as more tourists frequent the sightseeing areas of Pakistan, they leave behind atrocious amounts of trash, much of which can easily be avoided with a little effort on the visitors’ part.

Faiz Ali and his wife run a little resort in Gulmit village in Upper Hunza. “We are a small village where there is no mechanism of waste management other than what we manage ourselves,” says Faiz. He believes that visitors don’t value the sanctity of these beautiful places which is reflected by how they leave litter behind. The tourism industry needs to take up the issue more seriously and help spread awareness about keeping public spaces clean, he feels. “The tour operators who bring people are also primarily responsible for this,” he says. “Most of these tour operators are young boys who have only been here once or twice and know nothing about ecotourism.”

Litter and garbage removal and management require not only strict enforcement of the law and new regulations but also a change in our mindsets

Faiz makes sure his resort is clean and tidy. “We train tour operators to ensure that the clients are briefed about how to travel without leaving litter behind.” He himself is more environmentally aware and makes an effort to create a sustainable environment at his resort. He has a little organic garden where he grows vegetables. He carries the litter accumulated by visitors over to a flat piece of land where it is either buried or burnt. “I compost food waste which we call bukashi,” he says.

Sadly, the bulk of the litter is composed of disposable plastic. “I hope one day disposable plastic is banned everywhere as it is in Hunza city, so that this huge problem can be controlled,” he adds.

Abdul Basit has been associated as project coordinnator with the Central Khunjerab National Park (CKNP) as well as Deosai National Park (DNP). According to him, the park managements have tried to tackle garbage disposal in various ways. “A car would pick the garbage from the DNP on a daily basis for incineration,” he says. “However, that didn’t solve the problem. We then decided to give tourists bio-degradeable polythene bags to take their garbage back with them. But this didn’t solve the problem either. The management now conducts regular cleanliness drives with the district administration and local school students in an attempt to keep the park clean.”

In a step toward curbing environmental pollution, recently the Ministry of Climate Change announced a complete ban on plastic bags in the capital city of Islamabad to be in effect from August 14, 2019. This commendable move will play a significant role in reducing littering and its implications on health and the environment, yet we need to take a deeper look at the problem.

At CKNP, however, an initiative was started to tackle waste disposal which turned out to be a success. Basit explains, “We started paying the porters for bringing back garbage downhill from the K2 Base Camp. All the garbage was then dumped into the landfill site near Sost. The porter initiative became widely successful and now it’s a UNDP-funded project owned by the Gilgit-Baltistan government.”

Dr Anisur Rehman, Chairman Islamabad Wildlife Management Board, has interesting insights on how the litter problem has been minimised at the Margalla National Park trails. “Initially even the staff was not motivated enough to pick up the litter,” says Rehman. “We started picking the litter with them to motivate them. A year and a half ago, we were hauling around 600 kg to 800 kg of litter every week. For several months, we continued to haul up the litter and then realised we were still not solving the issue. So, for six months or so, we launched a public awareness campaign telling people how litter causes pollution and harmed the delicate ecosystems.”

Garbage spread all over in the Naltar Valley
Garbage spread all over in the Naltar Valley

This didn’t help much either, so the board came up with another solution. “The visitors were given a form to fill out and check boxes for every disposable item they carried,” he says. “They had to state how many packets of chips or juices they carried. We kept it with their CNIC and re-checked as they’d leave. However, it was quite shocking that the litter problem still persisted because we still continued hauling up a lot of litter. The next step was to put up large notices at all the trails stating that it was unlawful to throw litter around. Even that didn’t solve the issue because it was according to a 40-year-old Wildlife Act.

“What worked, however, was stating the law against polluting waterways and strictly prohibiting any disposable plastic item to be carried to the trails,” he adds. “Finally, now the litter problem is minimal.”

After assuming the management of Islamabad Zoo, Dr Rehman has promulgated the same restriction there. “We knew that the animals were ingesting plastic from the litter left by visitors, which can be fatal for them. This is not just a local problem but one found all over the world. The zoo has been declared a plastic-free zone and no disposable plastic items are allowed inside the zoo. It’s going to take a little while to implement it because using plastic bags and containers has become a hard habit for visitors. But we’re determined in our cause for the sake of the animals.”

Tariq Rahim Shah runs a retreat and restaurant near the Margalla Hills, Islamabad. “We have the option of serving our customers in earthen plates and glasses to promote an eco-friendly culture,” he says. However, they mostly insist on drinking branded bottled water. I collect the bottles and fill them up with sand to be used as eco-bricks for extending construction in my retreat. These eco-bricks are economical compared to normal bricks and also help to solve the litter issue to some extent.”

It appears that a much more thorough effort is required for a nation that doesn’t own up to the responsibility of cleaning up. Could public awareness, heavy fines and strict implementation be the answer? The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, for instance, has started a public awareness programme on waste management. A recent advertisement with the popular child star Ahmed Shah has been appreciated on electronic and social media. The Galiyat Development Authority has stepped up fines on littering and has collected fines amounting to 143,000 rupees from 23 hotels, 18 restaurants, 16 cabins and six resident houses besides individual tourists. One hopes that this drive is not a one-off move and that other provincial governments will step up their efforts as well.

How we can work together

Waste collection by the staff of CKNP
Waste collection by the staff of CKNP

For a problem of this scale which plagues the whole country, multiple strategies and solution providers are required.

Perhaps the government can consider looking into partnership arrangements with local citizens in community policing. The local community can act as tourist police, implement fines and share them with the government. This would bring in a respectable means of livelihood, solve the budgetary constraint issues of local governments and help tackle the litter problem to some extent, because nothing works like the strict promulgation of the law.

Additionally, the manufacturing companies of disposable plastic products need to participate in cleaning up the litter their products create. These companies can assist the government in setting up trash pick-up/recycling points.

School awareness drives need to be initiated on a massive scale by the government, corporates and NGOs. In Singapore for instance, one of the cleanest countries in the world, the school curriculum includes civic responsibility. In Pakistan, besides incorporating this content into the syllabi of government, private schools and madressahs, mosques can to be engaged in emphasising civic responsibility in sermons in order to change our mindset towards the issue.

What needs to change at the end of the day, however, is disposable culture. It does not take much of an effort to carry re-usable metal flasks and cloth bags or reed baskets for grocery and travel in general. There’s certainly very little effort required to collect your trash in a bag and empty it in dustbin. The key, however, is to reduce consumption itself. “Even if all the litter is collected, it is still a problem managing it,” Faiz Ali says. “Waste itself needs to be reduced.”

What also needs to change is the mindset that picking up your own litter is something meant for someone inferior to do. A friend recounted how, while travelling in a train through Japan, he saw someone leaving litter behind them. In no time, a woman stepped up to pick it and throw it in the dustbin some distance away. Likewise, ‘Plogging’ has become quite a popular activity, starting from Sweden and now in other developed countries, where joggers/ tourists pick up trash on the way. In the cleanest countries there is no sense of shame in picking up what others throw. The shame is only in leaving litter behind.

One hopes that, one day, this sensibility becomes our national more as well. It certainly requires sincere efforts from each of us.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 25th, 2019