Solid waste management

By Syed Mohammad Ali

Waste management has become an issue of growing global concern as urban populations continue to increase and consumption patterns continue to rise. The health and environmental implications associated with unsafe garbage disposal are mounting, particularly in developing countries.

Wastewater produced by domestic use, industrial processes and agricultural practices is a major problem when it comes to pollution, particularly the contamination of freshwater supplies. However, this article particularly focuses on solid waste management issues.

We live in a world where consumerism and the waste it generates is rampant. The world market for municipal waste, from collection to recycling, is worth an estimated $410 billion a year. Yet, according to the United Nation’s Environmental Programme, only a quarter of the billion tons of municipal waste produced each year is recycled or recovered, so there is still ample room for improvement.

It is encouraging to see a growing emphasis on investing in waste-management technologies ranging from extracting energy from organic waste and efficient gas capture from landfills. Obtaining energy from waste is common in many developed countries of the world.

In developing countries, however, the issue of waste management itself remains largely neglected, what to speak of turning waste into energy. Open dumpsites are still a common method of disposing of waste in many less developed countries, including ours. Dumping of mixed waste occurs alongside open burning, is also common, despite the severe air pollution associated with low- temperature combustion.

The adverse environmental and health impacts associated with inadequate solid waste management is a matter of grave concern for populous countries like Pakistan where millions of tons of solid waste are being generated annually. With population growth and increasing urbanisation and consumerism, this solid waste burden will inevitably increase. All major cities, be it Islamabad, Lahore or Peshawar, are facing enormous challenges in tackling the problem of collecting, transporting and disposing of solid waste.

Some efforts are being made in the megacities at least. The Lahore Waste Management Company, for example has set up a safe waste disposal site (which includes gas capture capability) site at Lakhodiar off the Ring Road. Other provinces are trying to also undertake similar initiatives for safe disposal and turning waste-to-energy, including Karachi, which has recently announced collaboration with a Chinese firm for this purpose. Yet, even if all these planned efforts were to materialise, they would still have a tough time coping with the actual scale of our waste management problem.

Managing waste requires a holistic approach which includes changes in consumption and waste production and usage patterns. This in turn necessitates not only adoption of appropriate technology, but building required organisational capacity, and cooperation among a wide range of stakeholders.

Some low-hanging fruit to help alter waste production patterns in Pakistan include banning production of plastic bags, tightening up implementation of existing waste disposal regulations, and focusing more on reuse and recycling. In this latter regard, there are civil society efforts, such as those by Gul Bahao Trust, which has tried to work with scavengers and junk collectors (kabarias) to collect recyclable industrial waste. Such initiatives merit a closer look in order to access if similar efforts can be scaled up, and how they can best be linked up with a broader plan of waste disposal, and turning waste into energy.

The need for waste management has long been ignored in our country despite our growing population and the incremental increase in waste production. However, our decision-makers would be advised to pay closer attention to this issue, especially since the costs associated with inadequate waste management are going to continue to escalate.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 13th, 2017.

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