Possible solutions for the trash problem in the Twin Cities

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Mar 3, 2014.

Islamabad – Recycling and waste-to-energy projects are two possible solutions for the gargantuan solid waste management crisis in the twin cities, according to environmentalists and experts.

Rawalpindi and Islamabad are trying to contain problems related to solid waste management, after years of negligence, poor-planning and lack of funds. The inefficient collection, transportation and disposal of the municipal trash generated in the twin cities pose ecological and health hazards for the residents.

Recycling of the trash is a workable solution at least for the federal capital, said Pakistan-Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) Director General Asif Shuja.

“Segregation of waste can be done at the source in to categories to facilitate recycling,” Shuja said. “You have an educated community of urban residents in the capital, which will most likely help with any eco-friendly initiative.”

Following a recent intervention by the Supreme Court about the Capital Development Authority (CDA) dumping the city’s waste near the Margalla Hills National Park, the civic agency went on record with four remedial actions, one of which was encouraging the recycling industry.

There is already a parallel recycling market in existence in the twin cities, even though most of the household solid waste disposed in Pakistan is believed to not have many recyclables.

According to a 2013 working paper by researchers from the National Rural Support Programme (NRSP) and two Canadian universities, more than 65 per cent of the 118 households in urban Rawalpindi, which were surveyed for the study, sold recyclables to waste collecting street hawkers.

A 2012 review article on Pakistan’s solid waste management situation published in the Journal of Environmental and Occupational Science recommended application of three Rs — Reduce, Recycle and Reuse — and “proper segregation of waste” alongside legislation and private sector involvement.

The NRSP researchers also found that most of the 118 Rawalpindi households were not served by any municipal solid waste service. They suggested “private sector business entrepreneurs should be encouraged in develop business propositions for waste collection and management” but be regulated by the government.

“The solution is clear: we have to involve the private sector,” Shuja said, agreeing with the studies. “The concerned authorities have let go of so many opportunities in the past and failed to deliver a good solid waste management system.”

The Pak-EPA’s own efforts to introduce an alternative to the hazardous plastic bags have met with limited success, even after a year since a complete ban on sale, purchase and production of plastic bags was introduced in Islamabad. Shuja, however, takes pride in some supermarkets and pharmacies of ditching plastic in favour of biodegradable bags.

Meanwhile, the twin cities generate as much as 500,000 tonnes of waste each year, one-fifth of which remains uncollected, according to official estimates.

The open dumping of trash leads to health risks, burning of trash releases carcinogenic fumes in the air and interaction of rain and heaps of trash can lead to contamination of underground water, according to Shuja.

A 2013 paper in the Journal of King Saud University, written by Pakistani researchers, indicated that open dumping in H-sector of Islamabad had increased the pH, Total Dissolved Solids quantity, electrical conductivity and heavy metal concentration in the soil at the dumping site.

The research also linked changes in the soil characteristics at the waste dumping sites with a 27 per cent reduction in the plant species around the sites.

The population expansion, especially on the outskirts of the twin cities, is also extremely dangerous for the whole solid waste management scenario. These areas are not serviced efficiently by the existing solid waste management system. Any increase in population could be catastrophic in terms of waste management, according to environmentalists.

“A permanent solution to the solid waste management is needed,” Shuja said.

The CDA came close to such a solution in 2008, with the proposal of a landfill site in Kuri, but that project quickly became the subject of controversy. Objections of contamination and water table raised about the project are all problems that can occur at landfill sites, even though Pak-EPA officials believe modern technology could have minimized those risks.

Since then, the CDA has been shifting its trash dumping sites on an ad-hoc basis.

Shuja recommended waste-to-energy as a solution being used worldwide to tackle solid waste management. “It also makes sense given our country’s power crisis,” he said.

Using solid waste to produce electricity usually involves the incineration of waste materials. The downside is that the incineration plants release harmful gases in to the atmosphere and must be made to follow a strict emissions-control regime, according to environmentalists.

Municipal solid waste can also be used for composting, which could improve the properties of soil and increase yield of some vegetable varieties, environmentalists said.

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