A zero waste city

Published May 12, 2021
The writer is an urban planner and CEO, Urban Collaborative.
The writer is an urban planner and CEO, Urban Collaborative.

IN 1978, Nanjido, a low-lying island located on the Han River in Seoul, was chosen as the city’s official landfill site and a once beautiful island was turned into a dump yard. However in 1991, a major landfill recovery project was initiated. Within five years, the island’s ecosystem was restored and the site transformed into a world-class ecological park. Since garbage was still present sub-surface, methane, a potent greenhouse gas, posed a threat. The city of Seoul installed 106 methane gas extraction wells. The gas — channelled into wells using fans — now provides heat to several surrounding offices and households. This did not happen in a policy vacuum. It was part of Seoul’s overarching vision to become a zero waste city that it now is, where solid waste is not ‘disposed of’, rather it becomes part of a ‘circular economy’ where nothing goes to waste.

Our dilemma, in Karachi and generally in urban Pakistan, is that we consider garbage as kachra (waste) — something that is unwanted and needs to be discarded. This mindset sits at the root of the solid waste management crisis witnessed daily on the streets of urban Pakistan. If one takes the case of Karachi, we have always focused attention on collection and disposal, never considering the sector in a holistic manner. The solid waste management sector works as a strategically connected ‘process chain’, where management starts even before waste generation where you aim for reducing waste generation levels, such as by enforcing or encouraging reduced packaging. The household then acts as a critical post where reuse, recycling and segregation can happen, significantly reducing the waste load needing collection and transportation.

At various stages during this cycle, elements of reuse, recycling, up-cycling and energy generation can be embedded. In households, many inorganic waste components can be reused as happened in the good old days, and kitchen waste can be turned into compost promoting healthy activities like kitchen gardening. Once the waste journey goes beyond the household, and if your vision is to go for zero waste rather than dumping and burning as is the case now, many interesting opportunities open up for promoting start-ups and entrepreneurship where community-based organisations and the private sector can become part of the ‘circular economy’ cycle creating jobs and businesses, making for a healthier, environment-friendly city.

Many inorganic waste components can be reused.

It defies logic that we fail to open our eyes to such opportunities. In a city where more than 50 per cent of the waste is organic, the government has failed to initiate and promote composting-based projects where the product does not only serve as recovered waste but its use can be linked with an agenda of greening Karachi. Recycling still happens in the informal sector with limited skills and technology capital but recycled products are crude, thus failing to optimise economic dividends. Globally, plastic, wood, metal-based recycling and up-cycling, including recycling of e-waste is a rewarding business with high levels of value addition and an expanding market. Here also you need to connect the dots and create the enabling policy and fiscal space for such enterprises to flourish. For example, establishing green building standards can promote the use of sustainable building materials where use of recycled materials is encouraged, adding to green ratings. We have as yet failed to develop our green building standards.

Feasibility of the waste-to-energy option is not fully explored. If found viable, it can add another important value addition to our waste management process in a city that regularly faces power shortages. The capacity and scope of citizen engagement is much enhanced for this sector, and a shared vision is needed for ‘Karachi as a zero waste city’. It’s not easy but can happen if all pull together and find shared benefits. Dividends can be economic, social and environmental, spread across the stakeholder pile — government, private, community.

To move towards a zero waste vision, a lot has to change: a change in mindset, policies, priorities and a reshaping of the associated governance architecture. With the formation of the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board, a sector that is served best at a decentralised, grassroots level, the system has been rendered dysfunctional. We require planned decentralisation. An enabling policy and regulation framework has to be charted to attract private enterprise. Indigenously developed technologies should be supported and best practices rewarded. This is of critical importance when designing sustainable cities — associated cross-cutting benefits need to be captured such as a greener city, enhanced economic prosperity, a healthier city with reduced health costs, and rejuvenated public spaces by reclaiming and designing vibrant public spaces that are presently contaminated with garbage. So let’s make Karachi a zero waste city!

The writer is an urban planner and CEO, Urban Collaborative.

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2021

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