Ten-year-old Mehran wades through an avalanche of garbage from an overflowing dumpster in Islamabad's F-10 sector. Sorting through the noxious mix of organic and inorganic waste, he picks out paper, cardboard, plastic and glass and tosses it into the bag slung over his shoulder.
Garbage-picking, often a job reserved for those on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, most commonly employs young boys and girls; Mehran is among thousands of children who scavenge for recyclables in dumpsters and landfill sites across Pakistan.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Pakistan generates around 20 million tonnes of solid waste annually and this figure grows by 2.4 per cent each year. In the absence of adequate garbage collection and waste management infrastructure, most of this garbage is incinerated or left to rot in dumps, often in the middle of cities.
Yet, most Pakistanis appear unconcerned. While garbage collection does occasionally appear on the national agenda in the context of governance failure, recycling or environmentally sustainable solid waste management is almost never discussed.
Syed Ayub Qutub, executive director of Pakistan Institute for Environment-Development Action Research (Piedar), has been working on environmental conservation and sustainable development for over 25 years. He says that compared to international standards — with per capita waste generation at about 0.8 kilos —Pakistanis do not produce a tremendous amount of waste. In comparison, the global average is 1.42 Kg per person.
However, Qutub notes, "municipal authorities in Pakistan only manage to collect half of this waste."
Even when municipal waste is properly collected and disposed of by concerned authorities, it usually ends up in landfill sites which are environmentally hazardous, contaminating land and water and releasing harmful greenhouse gasses. And as land becomes more expensive, there are also economic costs for dedicating large areas of land, merely for dumping the garbage.
"Scavengers collect almost all the metal and glass, 95 per cent of paper and about 60 per cent of plastic waste. They are providing an environmental benefit which is largely undocumented and unrecognised," says Qutub.
"However, the downside is reliance on child labour and the health hazards associated with this work. There is a need to reshape this industry to address these issues," he adds.
In addition to garbage-pickers, raddiwala or pheriwalas buy recyclables directly from households, while sanitary workers also pick out large metal and cardboard items from waste. All recyclables collected are sold to local kabarayas or scrap dealers who sort and clean materials before selling to middlemen, contractors, or factories.
Recycling is among the most effective means through which solid waste can be reduced and natural resources can be conserved by reusing materials and putting them back into productive use. While Pakistan does not have formal recycling facilities, an informal recycling industry continues to thrive.
Surrounded by heaps of plastic bottles, cardboard and dissembled appliances, Naik Mohammad sits behind a dust-covered desk in his shop in Mehrabadi in Islamabad. Various types of scavengers bring recyclable materials to his shop where they are sorted and weighed.
Mohammad buys plastic and paper at Rs 30 per kg, glass at Rs 5 per kg and metal at Rs 60 per kg.
More on this: How plastic is killing us
Most factories buying recyclables are not formal recycling facilities but small industrial units which reduce materials into composite forms, which can then be used to produce new products. Paper manufacturers make pulp out of waste paper and produce new products, metal and glass are also melted and reused while plastic is reduced to raisin or pellets.
But most high-quality plastic manufacturers in Pakistan use imported raisin and pellets because those produced locally from recycled materials are contaminated from being thrown in the garbage with decomposing food and soiled items, such as diapers.
Green Earth Recycling in Lahore is among a handful of companies in Pakistan which specialise in waste to product recycling and manufacturing. Head of Business Development, Syed Bilal Termezi, says the company procures all of its raw material locally through contractors who rely on scavengers for collection of plastic and paper from streets and households.
"However, we ensure that children are not employed. We are also running charity schools for children of garbage-pickers," he adds.
At Green Earth's facility waste paper and plastic is graded and reduced to composite materials which are then used to manufacture products such as outdoor furniture, roofing sheets, manhole covers and pellets. Termezi says that the products they make are mainly for outdoor use and they attempt to minimise indoor use and contact with food.
Households in Pakistan rarely segregate waste, with organic and inorganic materials tossed in together. This means that otherwise recyclable materials such as paper and plastic become contaminated with bacteria reducing their quality and usefulness. "Even if waste was segregated at the basic level with separate bins for organic and inorganic waste, we could reduce the amount of garbage that ends up in landfill sites," he says.
According to Qutub, many societies across the world separate household waste into different streams such as paper, glass, metal and organic or green waste. "In some places, citizens segregate waste into as many as seven types. Such societies also have strong social sanctions against mixing waste," he says.
He explains that for environmentalists the ultimate goal is 'sustainable materials management', a systemic approach to using and reusing materials more productively over their entire life cycle. This approach envisions a world in which the economy is entirely circular. However, as we work towards 'minimising, reusing, recycling, and extending the life cycle of products, it is essential to introduce the concept of 'clean waste'.
He says, "Clean-waste is waste segregated at the source so it can be fully reused as opposed to mixed waste, such as what we have in Pakistan, which contains bacteria and residue and uses a considerable amount of energy and resources to segregate later."
Households in Pakistan do not segregate waste because there is a lack of awareness of benefits as well as investment in separate bins.
"Waste segregation should be introduced as good social practice at a young age," says Qutub.
At the far end of the newly developed Sector G-15 in Islamabad is the Integrated Resource Recovery Centre (IRRC), a waste collection and segregation facility where organic or green waste generated by households in the area is being composted.
The facility was established in 2015 with funding from UN Escap (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) and UN-Habitat with the aim of reducing the environmental impact of dumping solid waste. However, the centre is self-sufficient, relying entirely on the income from the sale of recyclables and organic compost.
Similar facilities have also been established in the capital's B-17 and F-17 sectors. The IRRC staff collects garbage from houses and markets and brings it to the Centre where it is sorted into organic and inorganic waste. Inorganic waste is further segregated into various types of recyclables and sold to a contractor, while organic waste is composted at IRRC's facility and sold to consumers at Rs 20 per kilo.
The facility in G-15 receives three tons of municipal solid waste every day, which is sorted into recyclable and green waste. Recyclables are sold to a contractor, who pays Rs 70,000 each month for paper, plastic and metal.
Bilawal Khan, a manager at the IRRC facility in G-15, says the income from the sale of recyclables and compost from this one sector is enough to cover salaries and operational costs for the centre. "Such centres can be self-sufficient and even make a profit. If this model is emulated in cities and towns across Pakistan, we can significantly reduce the amount of garbage that ends up in landfill sites," he says.
But Bilawal estimates that even in at this centre about 25 per cent of recyclables are wasted because of mixing with green waste. "We have made efforts to bring about behavioural change and encourage households to segregate at source but have remained unsuccessful. Just convincing people to give their garbage bags was an achievement," he says.
Also read: Food waste and its consequences
Khan echoes Qutub's observation and says that waste segregation can only be introduced as a social practice if it is inculcated as a habit at a young age.
Mehrunisa Malik, a social entrepreneur from Islamabad and co-founder of Saaf Suthra Sheher (SSS), a company which aims to turn trash into profit by using innovative waste management solutions, says, "We do not take responsibility for our trash. Here it is always someone else's job to clean up after you. I want to challenge this idea and encourage people to care about where their garbage goes once it leaves their home."
Saaf Suthra Sheher specialises in integrated solid waste management concepts, with a focus on reducing, reusing and recycling waste. Through their initiative, Pappu Recycles, SSS collects recyclable waste from household and commercial partners and sells it to factories where it is recycled. Only waste segregated at the source is collected by the Pappu Recycles team, and partners are expected to purchase five different types of bins from the company, marked with labels for paper, plastic, metal, glass and tetra-pak.
"We expect our partners to give us unsoiled, segregated waste because if we were also sorting the waste for partners, it would be antithetical to our philosophy of encouraging people to take responsibility for their trash," says Malik.
Embassy of Belgium, along with Margalla Hotel, Café Behbud and non-governmental organisation Rozan were among the first to partner with SSS. To date, 100 households have signed up with SSS along with 25 offices and other commercial partners and some 40 tonnes of waste has been recycled by SSS. More and more people are signing up with a company and bins placed at farmers markets and events generate interest from household partners.
"Surprisingly, Pakistan has facilities to recycle a lot of various types of waste except low-quality plastic, usually used for flimsy plastic bags and Styrofoam. Chips packets with a silver film on the inside are also extremely difficult to recycle and usually end up in landfill sites," she says.
As it turns out, Styrofoam is worse than plastic as it is not recycled at all. Increasingly, restaurants are using Styrofoam to pack takeaway and Malik urges both businesses and customers to consider using other materials.
Malik says, "Ideally, there should be legislation to prevent companies from using such materials."
However, she insists that recycling is not a perfect solution for plastic because it cannot keep up with the volume of waste generated each year. "A lot of European countries which recycle at the household level have to export their waste plastic to be recycled because the facilities available locally cannot keep up," she says.
More on this: Garbage into gold
Much of the world's exported recyclable plastic ends up in China — some 279 million metric tonnes of America's scrap alone was recycled in China in over a quarter of a century. However, in early 2018, Beijing declared that it will no longer be a dumping ground for the world's trash and dramatically reduced the amount of waste it would import. This led to recyclable waste piling up in developed countries with nowhere to send it.
For Pakistan, banning plastics and unrecyclable products is "the only real solution", says Malik. "There are places in Africa and cities in India which have managed to eliminate plastic and we can emulate this model."
Header photo: Young boys collecting recyclable items from garbage in Islamabad. — AP / B.K. Bangash
Shiza Malik is a former member of staff. She works in Islamabad as a communication consultant and a freelance journalist. She tweets at @Shiza__Malik.