Resolving Kathmandu Valley’s solid waste problems

Published On: August 28, 2021 07:00 AM NPT By: Dr Dhundi Raj Pathak

Dr Dhundi Raj Pathak

Dr Dhundi Raj Pathak

(An individual SWM specialist, the author holds PhD in geoenvironmental engineering. He currently teaches GIS and solid waste management and landfill engineering.)

The waste collectors can make a schedule for waste collection. They can collect only biodegradable waste on one day and non-biodegradable waste on another day. It will help in maintaining a proper waste segregation system; otherwise this becomes only a propaganda campaign. No formal municipal waste recovery and recycling programs are practiced at present.

Solid waste management is one of the major challenges for municipalities of Nepal, including the ones facing the Kathmandu Valley's municipalities due to haphazard urbanization, fast-growing population, absence of basic facilities for integrated solid waste management, and deeply rooted misperception about waste management. About 3.32 million people in 18 municipalities of the Kathmandu Valley generate more than 1,200 tons of municipal solid waste daily, most of it ending up in landfills, dumped in the open, or burnt at sources.

According to the records maintained by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City, more than 800 tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) every day ends up at the Sisdole dump landfill site. Of the total collected waste, about 79% of the Kathmandu Valley’s solid waste is collected and transported by the private sector. However, this service is frequently disrupted due to many reasons. Based on an analysis of ADB (2013), in the Valley, the highest waste fraction is biodegradable (54%) followed by plastics (19%) and papers (17%). Despite a relatively high solid waste collection ratio in the Kathmandu Valley compared to other cities in Nepal, 17 municipalities, including two metropolitan cities dump their solid wastes at the Sisdole dumpsite, which has already turned into a highly vulnerable dumpsite, while Bhaktapur dumps its waste on the banks of the Hanumante River. Hence, Solid Waste Management (SWM) presents a major threat to the livability of the Kathmandu Valley and also contributes to pollution and public health hazards at final disposal site i.e. Sisdole landfill site due to lack of infrastructures for treatment and recovery of solid waste.

Key issues and problems

Over the last 30 years, though there have been significant changes in people's perception of sanitation and solid waste management, the general attitude of the Nepali society is yet to change. Now, everyone can understand the problems and opportunities of solid waste but never wants to translate their perception into behavior and action. Many people think that waste has to be thrown anywhere but not in ‘my backyard’.

Similarly, the metropolis describes solid waste as a major problem. However, it has received less attention from the federal government and municipalities, and in their plans and programs, as compared to other urban utilities and infrastructures. The concept of waste as resources with legal provisions of sorting waste at sources has been introduced in Nepal since 2011. As a result, waste management strategies are shifting from waste disposal to recycling and recovery and people are considering waste as a potential new resource. However, it doesn't mean that there is no waste to be landfilled and no land is required for waste management and everything can be managed at the source.

The fact is if you follow the waste management hierarchy appropriately i.e. reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover, the significant amount of waste can be diverted from landfilling and used as resources. However, there should be significant efforts on soft intervention like activities for people's behavior change, capacity building of all stakeholders, promotion on 3R activities as well as investment in SWM infrastructures for treatment, recycling, and recovery such that very less amount of waste needs to be landfilled. Resource recovery from MSW not only reduces the use of virgin raw materials and energy but also creates fertilizers and renewable energy and reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by reducing the amount of waste to be disposed of at landfills.

Waste management thus is more than crisis management linked to the collection and dumping of wastes, which only transfers problems from one place to another place. Municipality authorities and few so-called experts think that if the waste segregation is carried out at the sources, a significant amount of biodegradable waste i.e. more than 60 percent of the total waste can be managed at source. But it is not true for haphazardly urbanized cities like Kathmandu where many families live in a single house with limited open space and the city produces a huge amount of waste.

If the municipality makes significant efforts in soft intervention, about five percent of households can manage their organic waste at sources. However, other organic wastes have to be collected, transported, and treated properly. Mandatory segregation provision doesn't only help to solve the current solid waste management problems, but also requires that all operational components of the integrated SWM system including separate collection and transportation of source-segregated waste be followed, and if the collected waste is treated properly to recover as resources as much as possible, only a limited amount of waste will go to the landfill site. For this, the waste collector can make a schedule regarding waste collection. They can collect only biodegradable waste on one day and non-biodegradable waste on another day. It will help in maintaining a proper waste segregation system; otherwise this becomes only a propaganda campaign. No formal municipal waste recovery and recycling programs are practiced at present.

However, informal recycling practices within low-income groups exist in the Kathmandu Valley where more than 50 percent of dry recyclable materials are collected through these informal waste pickers and sold to local scrap shops for income generation and livelihood. But, recycling of organic waste is almost negligible in the Valley due to the lack of infrastructures for organic recycling and recovery, which has rather created serious environmental problems at the disposal site. Before the promulgation of the new constitution, there was a central government organization - the Solid Waste Management Technical Support Centre (SWMTSC) to provide technical support for technical, capacity building, policy, and plans related to SWM in municipalities, although SWM operation was the main responsibility of municipalities. At present, there is no dedicated unit at the federal and provincial levels to provide technical support to local governments in all aspects of SWM.

  The Way Forward

To provide safe, sustainable, and environmentally friendly solid waste management services at the municipal level, proper SWM strategies and action plans should be developed based on a pragmatic approach. The essential steps to make the city clean and optimum recovery of resources from waste include extending collection to all municipalities of the Kathmandu Valley, and implement both waste management hierarchies (5R-refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and recovery) and planned transformation of open dump to an engineered landfill site. A new engineered landfill site at Banchare dada is reported to be almost ready to dispose of solid waste from the municipalities of the Valley. However, it doesn't again solve the solid waste problems of the  Valley if we don't invest in other SWM infrastructures like treatment, recovery, and recycling facilities.

The metropolis should also encourage the proactive participation of all stakeholders (communities, private sector enterprises, women, youth, and other stakeholders) through incentives, encouragement, rewards, and punishment.

These initiatives help to change the Not Action Talking Only (NATO) behavior to the Action Before Talking (ABT) behavior of the metropolis leaders, city planners and the general public. If we start the action before talking with will power, clear vision, and confidence, a sustainable solution for SWM can be achieved. SWM service should be made self-sustaining within a planning period by resource recovery and cost recovery approaches such as service charges from beneficiaries and revenue from reusable and recyclable products. Those responsible for causing pollution or generating solid waste should pay the cost for dealing with the pollution or managing the solid waste to protect public health and the environment (polluters pay principle) and the producers’ liability should be extended in a concerted manner.

We have to keep in mind that SWM problems for all cities are common but it doesn't mean that a single solution works perfectly for all. The waste-to-energy technology that is working perfectly in Europe and Japan doesn't work in our context without customization. The composition, calorific value of waste and other factors affect the selection of technology. The customization in technology and site-specific solutions to address local issues only gives a sustainable solution. The decentralized solution will be appropriate for small and less urbanized cities. However; the centralized solution will be an appropriate solution for the more urbanized and highly populated city like Kathmandu where the availability of land for ISWM facilities is very crucial. As an alternative to recover the resources from organic waste in the Valley, the 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 also provides compost fertilizers.

In addition to source segregated biodegradable municipal waste, other feeding materials such as cow dung, waste from poultry farms, biomass, and solid part of fecal sludge can be added to run large-scale anaerobic biogas plants in full capacity. For non-degradable dry waste, increasing the recycling rate is the most preferred option but this requires more investment into waste sorting, processing, and recycling infrastructure. If we want to promote the recycling of waste, only recycling campaigns and trading of particular recycling materials is not a solution but we must find an end solution in our own country. Private sector participation and investment in such businesses need to be encouraged in the Valley.

There are several technologies we have already piloted in the Valley over many years. For example, a biomethanation plant at the Teku transfer station to convert three tons/day bio-waste into electricity in 2017 and compost plants at different places of the Valley were successfully piloted but the technology is not scaled up and not improved for site-specific solutions depending upon the nature of waste and the resources available. Therefore, the technique and technology used in SWM should be scaled up with time, and the waste management sector should also be taken as an urban infrastructure like roads, drainage, water supply, etc. To manage massive amounts of solid waste in a sustainable manner, we need bigger investors with big commercial vision. This is where the private sector and investors should step in.

Finally, a competent federal unit should be in place for providing technical support in all aspects of SWM, especially in policy formulation, developing SWM standards and guidelines, capacity building for local government. It also is beneficial if there are responsible SWM units under the provincial governments for providing technical assistance in the design of SWM infrastructures, coordinating with different bodies, and identifying and developing regional SWM facilities to participate in many municipalities.

(An individual SWM specialist, the author holds PhD in geoenvironmental engineering. He currently teaches GIS and solid waste management and landfill engineering.)

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