There’s a huge heap or two of garbage in almost every street in Kathmandu right now. And it’s getting bigger by the day—men in hoodies and women with shawls wrapped around their heads consistently add bulging blue polythene bags to the piles as furtively as possible.
With incessant rainfall cutting off access to the Sisdol landfill site in Kakani rural municipality, Nuwakot, 75 private companies and municipalities have stopped collecting trash from homes and offices in Kathmandu valley. In the meanwhile, most people’s modus operandi of keeping their homes trash-free has been to dump their household wastes under a bridge or on a garbage pile nearby. This has resulted in a city that is slowly, quite literally, starting to stink to high heavens.
This is an all-too-familiar scene in Kathmandu. Without a proper waste management system, trash lines the roadsides and litters the riverbanks on a fairly regular basis. Before blaming the government, that’s inept and apathetic at best and immoral and corrupt at worst, perhaps we should look at our own actions. After all, we are the ones producing all that waste. So, does your dustbin have everything from paper, plastic, and fabric to electronics, leftover food and soiled pads?
Dhurba Acharya of Solid Waste Management Association Nepal (SWMAN) says every household could significantly reduce their trash if they segregated it. A simple system to keep your dry and wet waste separate would take care of problems like filth and stench too. “It’s as easy as having two different bins, one for dry waste like plastic and paper and the other for kitchen waste. Mixing the two increases the volume of trash and ensures everything, including things that could have been recycled, ends up in the landfill,” he says.
Unfortunately, Kathmandu has never been interested in segregating its waste. Acharya says people cite time and space constraints as reasons for their inability and unwillingness to do so. Trash, for most, is somebody else’s problem. The popular opinion seems to be it’s either the private companies’—that we pay to collect our garbage—or the government’s responsibility. While effectives policies and investments are needed to tackle the insurmountable problem that waste management has become in Kathmandu, our collective efforts can go a long way in lessening the load on a landfill that is already brimful.
Stuti Sharma, communications and advocacy coordinator at Doko Recyclers, says composting organic waste at home will solve half the problem. According to an ADB study, on average, 66 percent of the waste we produce is organic. At restaurants, 55 percent of the total waste produced is compostable. Kathmandu produces 1,200 tons of garbage daily out of 65 percent is organic waste, and 15-20 percent is recyclable. That leaves little for the landfill. But without segregation, all of it ends up at Sisdol.
The problem right now is that we are throwing everything away and stuffing it all in the same trashcan. That seems to be the most convenient way to get rid of what we don’t need. We aren’t concerned with the long-term ramifications of our actions. Reusing and recycling require effort so it’s not unusual to see glass bottles and clothes spilling out of a bag that contains vegetable peels and other degradable items. We expect someone else to sort through our trash and while that is mostly what happens, it’s not always feasible.
Sharma segregates trash at home and says the volume that can’t be composted or recycled and needs to be sent to the landfill is minimal. She adds it’s possible to keep your home clean despite having trash lying around for months if you just separate what decays from that which does not. Kiran Shrestha, Action Waste Pvt. Ltd., says mixed waste always ends up in landfill. Sorting trash manually is risky as a single bag of waste will invariably contain everything from plastic cold drink bottles and cooked vegetables to broken glasses and blades.
“It would help if we were all a little mindful of our actions,” says Shrestha. We can choose to donate things we don’t need like books and clothes and hand over other recyclables like shampoo bottles and old gadgets to companies like Khalisisi and Doko Recyclers or sell them to one of the many laborers who collect them door-to-door. Doing so will not only prevent further inundation of Sisdol but contribute to a circular economy that will save valuable resources.
Most of us are aware of the three Rs of reducing waste—Refuse or Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle—but we don’t practice them. Yajaswi Rai, founder of Leklekk: The Green Wave, a service that provides eco-friendly products, says the focus should be on reducing consumption. While reusing and recycling are important, she believes it’s just extra work when we use more than we need. Sharma of Doko Recyclers agrees and says if every one of us were to become conscious consumers, it would guarantee less trash.
“They say the best clothes are the ones you have in your closet,” says Sharma adding that we don’t always need new things and that we must get creative and make do with what we have as far as possible. If we were to focus on reducing what we buy and bring into our homes, she says, that will definitely decrease the amount of things we throw out. Currently when the local government evidently has no clear plans and policies and often cities budget constraints to tackle waste management issues, that’s the only way we can hope to get the situation under control.
However, Aayushi KC, founder of Khaalisisi, says the results of our efforts aren’t going to be quick, especially when we have gone so long without a proper waste disposal system. But lifestyle changes on our part, she says, can collectively play a major role in coming up with a sustainable long-term solution. We must do our bit and start now, adds Acharya of SWMAN. He says the Solid Waste Management Act 2011 mandates segregation of waste at source but, so far, the rule has been ignored. He says that if we were to separate our trash into compostable, recyclable, and non-recyclable, it would be easy for trash collectors to dispose of it accordingly.
It would also be a humane thing to do as haphazardly disposed trash pose many health risks to the 4,000 laborers employed by various companies to collect trash across Kathmandu. Apart from small injuries and diseases, after many years in the job, most workers develop debilitating health problems. Segregation, thus, would be an empathetic gesture as well. “Each neighborhood can set up a communal compost pit in areas where space is an issue. This would ensure trash collectors don’t get decayed matter and grime on themselves while transferring your dustbin contents into the collection vehicle,” says Shrestha of Action Waste Pvt. Ltd. The reason trash ends up by the roadside or along riverbanks is because it starts stinking and people want to keep their homes clean, he adds. But dry waste won’t create such unhygienic conditions and could be kept in a corner of a room or apartment till it’s eventually collected.
If Kathmandu were to reduce consumption and segregate the waste it produces, Banchare Danda, an under-construction landfill site in Nuwakot expected to be complete by the (Nepali) year’s end, won’t go the Sisdol-way. Additionally, the laborers who handle our trash for us would be spared the humiliation of having to deal with dirty diapers and pads.