Rapid urbanization, witnessed across Asia including in Nepal, is a key feature of today’s development trajectory. By 2050, it is projected that more than two-thirds, around 7 billion, of the global population will live in urban environments. For fast-growing cities, made up of complex and interconnected systems, this presents some of the greatest challenges of our time. Transport, energy, water, sanitation, health, food, and waste systems must respond, adapt, and scale, and do so in a way that sustains society, standards of living, and the environment. Circular Economy thinking can be a crucial component in responding to these challenges, and at the Himalayan Circular Economy Forum (HiCEF) we have recently been taking a close look at Kathmandu’s waste system.
Why does waste matter?
Poorly managed waste matters on many fronts. Environmentally, it affects water systems, and the air we breathe. The open dumping of rubbish in rivers and on land results in water systems contaminated by chemicals, leachate, and microplastics. This leads to all kinds of pollution which directly affects the livelihoods of those who rely on rivers and contaminates the water table, thus affecting many more. Contaminated rivers ultimately reach the sea, threatening ocean ecosystems.
Air pollution comes in different forms. The burning of waste creates carbon emissions and toxic gases hazardous to human health; the fact that this is being done within urban areas makes it even more harmful to people. Solid waste accounted for around 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions even back in 2010 – and that was just methane from landfill sites. There are ways of preventing this but it’s not happening in Nepal, or in many developing and some industrialized economies.
It’s usually the marginalized and the poor who are most affected: local inhabitants near the Sisdole landfill site; informal waste pickers; those who have not got their own water well, or running water into their homes; people who rely on the river downstream for washing, or fishing. In short, those who lack the material means to mitigate these issues and to lead healthy lives. Waste, therefore, raises serious issues of environmental justice, and without a system change, these environmental and social injustices will only get bigger.
The discarded materials of 2021 are a complex mix of plastics, wood, e-waste, metals, paper glass, and organic matter. Materials can present a significant technical challenge; some plastic packaging is often ‘unrecyclable.’ Yet, with changes in the waste system, there is potential untapped value in almost all waste produced today. Organic matter, which represents at least 60% of total waste volumes in Nepal and is responsible for most of the methane emissions from landfills, can be converted to energy, compost, or fertilizer. E-waste contains precious metals. Wood and scrap metal is already re-used or sold into the market where it can be.
Forward-thinking Kathmandu-based companies like Doko Recyclers are trying hard to formalize the creation of value out of waste. They are even experimenting with refurbishing discarded electronic goods and appliances for reuse. Another company, Biocomp, takes organic waste from vegetable markets and turns it into high-quality compost. Yet despite the impressive innovation and determination of these firms and others, many factors combine to deter the creation of a recycling and regenerative waste sector in the Kathmandu Valley. For the value of materials to be tapped at scale, we need system change.
Three system changes
As development institutions and policy makers wrestle with the waste issue, we suggest three areas of system change that should be targeted:
1) Segregation of waste
One of the major factors behind the low rates of recycling in Kathmandu is the limited segregation of waste at the source. So much so, that recyclers often find it more cost-effective to pay organizations for their segregated waste than to be paid for collecting waste that is a dirty mixture of wet (organic) and dry materials. In some instances, subcontracts are tendered by municipalities for waste segregation, but with limited time or space to achieve this. Some separation is achieved, notably by the informal waste sector, which looks to identify value wherever it lies, but this is ad hoc, small scale, and only for the most obviously valuable commodities.
Infrastructure, and incentives to invest in infrastructure, will be key. We heard that many private sector firms and INGOs know very well that there are immense potential opportunities in the recycling industry and in the waste management sector, but are reluctant to invest in infrastructure and new technology in Kathmandu due to (among other things) the short-term nature of waste management contracts. There are many infrastructure shortfalls in Nepal: lack of real estate for transfer facilities; the inability to process materials that are commonly recycled abroad (eg. glass); the lack of basic mechanical waste segregation technology are just a few. Real change will require major investment in infrastructure and regenerative technologies. Public policy, as well as public-private partnerships and green development finance, have a vital role to play.
3) Market demand
The existence of a market for recycled, re-used and regenerated materials in Nepal and the near-abroad is a vital, but currently largely absent, part of the system. Efforts to achieve this go hand in hand with addressing the challenges mentioned above; if manufacturers are going to change their production lines, they need to know that quality recycled materials will be available. The market creation challenge is significant, but not one that should be viewed as impossible or in isolation from developments elsewhere. Major transnational companies such as Unilever are investing vast sums to re-engineer their packaging to become more sustainable. Consumer demand for more sustainable packaging is growing fast in Europe. Closer to home, there are opportunities to work with bottling plants and to find ways for organically produced fertilizer to help fill the gap that chemical fertilizer cannot.
Time for a new approach
It is high time for the waste system to be repurposed, and to make sustainability a core part of urban development. The right strategy would include ambitious targets and the ways to reach them. Its focus should be on minimizing waste, keeping materials in use, and creating value from waste. To achieve this in Nepal, a whole systems approach needs to be adopted, one which takes steps – small and large – to make the Circular Economy profitable and incentivizes entrepreneurs and investment. In some areas, profound innovation and major financing will clearly be required. In others, however, small or low-tech interventions and unlocking systems breakthroughs that already exist elsewhere will be enough. With the pace of urban development, changes in the waste system cannot happen soon enough. Without this, Nepal’s waste chaos will continue to have serious consequences for society and the environment we depend upon.