The capital’s residents are used to garbage piling up on the streets, but nothing will prepare them for the crisis that is soon to come
All photos: Bikram Rai
For as long as anyone can remember, Kathmandu has had a garbage problem. The Valley’s rapid and unplanned growth, poor municipal management and the absence of elected mayors for 20 years made it a chronic crisis.
But nothing can prepare us for what is to come: the Valley’s only landfill site at Sisdole will reach capacity within six months, and there are no alternatives planned.
What has made matters worse is the increase in plastic waste, and the failure to recycle the biodegradable rubbish that makes up more than half of the Valley’s current garbage. Kathmandu Valley’s main towns have also never developed a comprehensive waste management system that looks beyond just collecting and dumping waste.
Sisdole was meant to be a stop-gap landfill for two years, but has been receiving the capital’s trash for more than a decade. Preparation of a long-term facility in Bancharedanda has been slow.
Bancharedanda landfill site
“We have been expanding the capacity of the current landfill site, but now if we don’t find an alternative in the next six months there will be a crisis situation,” warns the person whose job it is to solve the problem: Rabin Man Shrestha, chief of the environment division at Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC).
As usual in Nepal, the core problem is lack of coordination, in this case between the municipality, the national government and trans-district jurisdictions. The issue has been compounded by confusion over how much responsibility each of the three tiers of government (national, provincial and local) has.
The proposed Bancharedanda site is located on the border of Nuwakot and Dhading districts and will have the capacity to handle Kathmandu’s waste for 50 years after completion. The government acquired 90 hectares for the project, which is estimated to cost nearly Rs3 billion.
Although construction of a bridge is underway and diversion of a river at the landfill site has been completed, the new federal political structure has caused confusion over who is responsible for completing the project.
Dipendra Oli of the Solid Waste Management Technical Support Centre, which was previously tasked with supporting local bodies with waste management, says, “We sent in a proposal to the ministry but with the new act saying that garbage management is the responsibility of the local government, the budget hasn’t been earmarked for the construction of the landfill itself. Even if it was, it will still take at least three years for it to be completed.”
Kathmandu Valley generates 800 tons of solid waste every day out of which more than 60% is still organic, which could technically be composted. But since garbage is not segregated, it adds to the weight and bulk of the trash.
New commercial startups are recycling paper, plastic and biodegradable waste, but it will take time for them to scale up. (See box) At the institutional level, waste management still doesn’t seem to be a priority and is still seen as simply sweeping and dumping.
“The basic principle of waste management — to reduce, reuse and recycle — is not followed here. We have been stuck with the same system that was started years ago, with no improvement,” says solid waste management expert Dhundiraj Pathak.
“If we don’t recover and reuse waste, our garbage problem will never be solved,” Pathak says, adding that the Sisdole site is unstable, and could trigger a landslide, as happened recently in Sri Lanka.
There is money to be made converting waste to biogas, compost and even electricity and fuel, but plans to recover and treat the Valley's waste have gathered dust. Most of KMC’s waste management budget is spent on transportation, and building treatment and recycling plants doesn’t seem to be a priority.
“Many pilot projects have been carried out in the past: generating biogas and compost from organic waste and vermiculture, and building a fecal sludge treatment plant, but none of it was implemented on a larger scale — the municipality is clearly incapable of running it,” says environmentalist Bhusan Tuladhar.
In 2009, the government announced a tender to sub-contract the management of Kathmandu’s waste to private companies. Six years later two private firms, Nepwaste and Clean Valley Company, were given the nod, but no contract has been signed yet.
“It is a big project with huge investment so it is obvious that it will take time. But the government keeps changing, so we have to explain and negotiate with new people every time,” says Nabin Bikash Maharjan of the Clean Valley Company.
Experts say Kathmandu first needs to think of a short-term alternative to Sisdole to avoid a looming garbage emergency. But in the longer-term, it is time to think of integrated waste management within the framework of new local governments.
Says Bhusan Tuladhar: “Local bodies need to be proactive and we need to come up with an approach that looks at all aspects of waste management, waste collection, waste recycling, landfilling, hazardous waste management and community engagement.”
Cash from trash
In 2013, the group Blue Waste to Value Pvt Ltd partnered with Society for Environmental Conservation (SEC), a local initiative in Panga, Kirtipur, on a community-based waste management project. The idea was simple: to segregate waste at source, recycle whatever possible and send only the residue to the landfill.
The project included a machine that converted organic waste to compost, and covered 600 households until the earthquake in 2015 stalled the initiative.
Not wanting to let garbage go to waste, Nabin Bikash Maharjan decided to make a business out of Blue Waste. Kirtipur Waste Management Services (KWMS) was born, with Blue Waste providing financial, technical and managerial support and SEC taking care of the collection, segregation and processing. The group has now expanded to 10 wards in Panga.
The segregated garbage is sorted into wet (organic), recyclable dry waste and non-recyclable dry waste. The organic waste is converted into compost and the recyclable dry waste, like plastic bottles, is sold to trusted vendors. Only the non-recyclable waste is then sent to the landfill.
“Most households here convert biodegradable waste to compost on their own: we mostly get inorganic trash,” says Maharjan. Each household pays Rs 250 to 450 a month for the service, depending on the amount of waste they generate. Households that cannot afford the service get it for free. Since the project stared, the volume of waste going to landfills has been cut by 80%.
Blue Waste is now partnering with Yak & Yeti and Hyatt Regency to manage the hotels' waste in an environmentally friendly manner. Of the 1.5 tons of waste collected there, some of the wet organic waste is converted into animal feed. The rest is sorted at source,re-segregated, reused and recycled.
Other garbage startups, like Doko and Khalisisi — started by young Nepali social entrepreneurs — also fill the gap in waste management left by government and municipal neglect.
Says Maharjan: “If you can involve up to 1,500 households, you can make a profit but if you are looking to do it at a smaller level it is better not to get involved. Most of this is informal and there are no government incentives.”
It is estimated that more than 10% of Kathmandu’s waste is made up of plastic and other disposable wrappers like foil. This proportion is growing as Nepal becomes a consumerist, throwaway society with no regulations to force manufacturers to factor in collection and recycling of plastic bags and wrappers.
The government has banned the use of plastic bags multiple times, but the rule was never properly implemented because scant homework was done to give consumers alternatives. Plastic industries, which benefit from political patronage, say they were never consulted.
“Political parties get donations from plastic manufacturers for election campaigns, so the bans are never seriously enforced,” explains Dipendra Oli of the Solid Waste Management Technical Support Centre. “Who do you think they will listen to: environmentalists like us or the manufacturers?”