It sounds harsh but it’s the sad truth: the heaps of waste troubling Kathmanduites demonstrate ultimate lack of responsibility, not of the municipal authorities but of the citizenry itself. Kitchen waste has to be managed by the household. It should be the bottom line of a civilized and hygienic urban living. Period.
Kathmandu still behaves like a captured city. The city’s locals—the Newa people and the other communities that came along with the Gorkha rulers during the unification—are the so-called ‘raithane’ Kathmanduites. But the major chunk of the population living in the city is comprised of those who have migrated from outside, either temporarily or permanently. Many of them live in rented rooms, often students and young boys and girls sharing a single room with improvised kitchen facilities.
This situation has made the city an equivalent of a large slum, or at best, a disorganized concrete settlement. It has little of what a modern city should have. Unrestricted construction activities and municipal solid waste production have made the city unlivable, and the volume of single-use plastics, rising for decades, has also soared since the start of the pandemic.
The recycling business in Nepal is dependent on small-scale disorganized Indian collectors. Recently, there have been some creative attempts by some social entrepreneurs to tackle the issue, but kitchen waste is left completely at the mercy of the households or the municipal collection system. And that has been a cause of continuous trouble.
As a result, the best some youngsters with activist streak could think about after heaps of garbage piled up in Kathmandu was to throw waste-filled polybags in front of the mayor’s office. But there’s hardly been an attempt from the citizenry to think of other ways to clean up this mess.
Kitchen waste is easily manageable, and can even become a source of income. Some examples shared as success stories by the UN Environment Program could give us a great way out of this mess.
A few years ago, roadsides and canals filled with stinking garbage were threatening Indian coastal city Alappuzha’s status as a tourist destination as well as exposing residents and visitors alike to clouds of flies and disease-spreading mosquitoes. Protests by local residents had led to the closure of the city’s main landfill site in 2014.
Since then, the city in the eastern state of Kerala—dubbed “the Venice of the East” for its network of backwaters and coastal lagoons where tourists can rent houseboats—has addressed the problem by introducing a decentralized waste management system. This separates biodegradable waste at ward level, treats it in small composting plants, and provides many of its 174,000 residents with biogas for cooking.
Another example is Ljubljana in Slovenia. As the first European capital to aim for zero waste, Ljubljana is reaping multiple benefits from its commitment to cutting-edge waste management. While some countries have opted for incineration to control landfill, the Slovenian city has chosen to maximize recycling and reduction.
After more than a decade of improvement and education, Ljubljana has one of the highest rates for the separate collection and recycling of waste in Europe—over 60 percent. That performance helped it secure the European Commission’s Green Capital award in 2016. It has also banned cars from its center, revived its parks, and helped Slovenia become a sustainable tourist destination.
A key step has been to collect separated waste directly from people’s homes. Biodegradable and recyclable waste is collected more frequently, encouraging people to separate diligently to prevent it from piling up (and beginning to smell). The city is also running information campaigns to promote reduction, re-use and responsible consumption to curb the amount of stuff people throw away. Reducing food waste is a particular target.
The results are impressive: the quantity of recovered materials rose from 16 kg per person in 2004 to 145 kg in 2014; the amount sent to landfills fell 59 percent; total waste decreased by 15 percent. The average monthly waste management cost was less than 8 euros per household in 2014—the lowest in the country.
It is high time we start thinking about waste differently in Kathmandu. The key to success is the willingness of households to separate their waste before it is collected. This demands years of awareness-raising including public meetings and door-to-door visits across the city. Knee-jerk reactions and blame shifting activism will not give us a permanent solution.
Throwing plastic bags full of your rotten tomatoes in front of the mayor won't help. We must help our municipalities. The money spent to open more sites to burn or bury rubbish, or to deal with non-recyclable plastic food containers, milk jugs and yogurt cups could go toward building new libraries or hospitals or parks—this new approach is a potential game changer.