The Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) has restarted collecting waste following an agreement with the residents of Nuwakot district’s Sisdol and Bancharedanda, two sides selected for the disposal of Kathmandu valley’s solid waste. But many reckon it is only a matter of time before Kathmandu’s garbage problem will rear its ugly head again. Pratik Ghimire of ApEx talked to Dhundi Raj Pathak, a geo-environmental engineer and solid waste management expert, to get some insights into the issue.
Why hasn’t Kathmandu found a sustainable way to manage its solid waste?
Our ‘collect-and-dump’ approach has created a never-ending waste management crisis. Three decades ago, the majority of our solid waste used to be organic and the people of Kathmandu used to make fertilizers from them. It was a sustainable way to manage household waste. Yes, there were hygienic issues as waste materials were being managed at home. But there are ways to manage waste in a more hygienic way, especially by improving and scaling up the technology.
Unfortunately, we stopped that practice and started throwing waste on the road and dumping it in containers for them to be taken to the landfill. The landfill is one of the last components of integrated solid waste management (ISWM), where only residual waste should be disposed of and that too via a scientific and sanitary process. We have been following the wrong waste management approach i.e. shifting a problem from one place to another instead of adopting a sustainable ISWM approach for decades.
Who do you hold responsible for this state of affairs?
Every one of us. People don’t segregate their waste at home, nor do the local government and private companies collect and transport the segregated waste separately. Similarly, the federal government seems least bothered with the capital city’s waste management problem. None of the government recognizes solid waste management like urban infrastructures and has not made any investment in the treatment and recovery of solid waste over the past three decades.
Private companies also followed the same path that municipalities enjoy. They collect waste and dump it at Sisdol without focusing on resource recovery and service improvement. Gokarna, the first landfill for Kathmandu valley, was shut down for various issues. The KMC then designated Sisdol as a temporary landfill site for two years in 2005, with a permanent one proposed at Bancharedanda. The proposed landfill was never completed and the city continued to dump waste at Sisdol. We have overused Sisdol and overstayed our welcome there. That’s why the KMC repeatedly runs into a conflict with the Sisdol residents.
Is there a more sustainable way to manage our waste?
Solid waste management is not only a technical issue; it is also a social and managerial issue. We need both soft (capacity-building and behavioral change) and hard (investment in waste treatment and recovery/recycling facilities) interventions. In the past, we did either only soft interventions (campaigns) or we invested in infrastructure, without much planning and study. So we ultimately remained in the same position without finding a sustainable solution.
Moreover, the selection of waste treatment technology and process of waste management we adopt for (technically feasible and economically viable) depends on the amount and types of waste we produce. Different countries do it differently. Compared to more developed countries, we have a different kind of waste. We have more organic waste with high moisture content; they have more dry wastes like plastics, and papers with high calorific value.
Before the 80s, landfilling was popular but it caused environmental pollution. Also, the rapid urbanization reduced the suitable lands forcing people to seek alternatives. European countries and Japan once used incinerators to reduce the volume of waste and convert the mixed waste to energy through incinerators. But it affected public health and the environment as those machines were the main emitters of cariogenic gasses.
Since the 90s, those countries shifted their waste management strategies from waste disposal to recycling and recovery of waste as resources which Nepal can follow strictly. However, it doesn’t mean that we no longer need landfill sites. The fact is if you follow the waste management hierarchy appropriately i.e. reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover, a significant amount of waste can be diverted from landfilling and only residual waste should be sent to the landfill site. What we should do in the first step is segregate the solid waste into biodegradable and non-degradable materials at the source.
Separate collection, transportation, required treatment and recovery is a must for proper waste management.
The decentralized solution is handy for the small and less urbanized municipality however the centralized solution would be an appropriate solution for the highly populated cities, like Kathmandu where the availability of land for ISWM facilities is very crucial. Large-scale composting to produce fertilizer is the preferred option considering the huge demand for organic fertilizer and the potential for import substitution. As an alternative to recover the resources from organic waste, waste to energy (biogas plant) for treatment of source-segregated biodegradable waste can be established to generate energy in the form of methane gas. This option doesn’t only recover energy from the biodegradable fraction of solid waste but also provides compost fertilizers.
For non-degradable dry waste, increasing the recycling rate is the most preferred option but this requires more investment for infrastructures. Not only for managing massive amounts of solid waste in a sustainable manner but also for making it a profitable business, larger investments and a business vision is important. This is where the competent private sector and investors should step in. The private sector should take care of waste management where the local government should act as a regulatory body.
Do you think we lack good waste-management policies?
I don’t think so. Our plans and policies are up to date. Where we are lacking is in their implementation. It may be because of low vision, willpower, and confidence in leadership. Without a functional institutional arrangement, no policies could be implemented.
It is important that all solid waste management stakeholders should have collective efforts to find a sustainable solution to this problem. As of now, the first two tiers of government have not provided any technical support to municipals which is a major mistake. A competent federal unit is hence required to assist local levels in all aspects of solid waste management, especially in policy formulation and development of guidelines.
I learned that the new national solid waste management policy was recently approved by the cabinet and now needs the revision of the solid waste management act, 2011 in the context of three tiers of governments as well as to address a new stream of waste. Moreover, we should introduce investment-friendly policies and plans to attract the private sector for this business with a focus on resource recovery and establishing recycling facilities. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws should be introduced to make manufacturers responsible for managing the use of single-use and low-grade plastics as they are either expensive to recycle or can’t be recycled at all.
What do you suggest stakeholders do?
Collection coverage should be largely extended in the local units of Kathmandu valley and safely transport and disposal at the Bancharedanda landfill site by following sanitary landfill operational guidelines should be mandatory. Also, improvement in the collection and transportation systems with the recovery of resources from waste to reduce its amount at landfill should be implemented. For this, the people (waste producers) should segregate waste at sources at least in biodegradable and non-degradable fractions and keep it at the proper place inside their house premises before collecting by respective service providers.
Biodegradable waste has to be managed at the source through household composting to make fertilizers if possible. The municipality as well as authorized private companies should collect and transport source-segregated waste separately as per the schedule and treat it in the municipal level treatment plants. The federal government should provide the land where the municipality can build and operate waste treatment and recovery/recycling infrastructures in partnership with the private sector.
If we follow all the procedures, only residual waste (almost 30 percent of total amount) is what remains to be managed at the sanitary landfill site. Simultaneously, the post-closure and land utilization of Sisdol dumping site should be carried out to reduce existing adverse impacts on the public and the environment.
As for Sisdol residents, the problems they raised are always valid, and their protest is legitimate, but they have been making irrelevant agreements every time. As a result, the real victims are deprived of justice but a few ill-intended so-called victims have received the advantage while the government has made several agreements just for crisis management instead of problem solving. They should ask for a proper operation of the landfill site—one that does not endanger their health and environment. They instead bargain for jobs and physical infrastructure. If the site is managed as per standard, environmental compensation for the affected area should be distributed for the development and income generating activities of local people on priority basis.
A shorter version of this interview was published in the print edition of The Annapurna Express on June 16.