Concealed from privileged city dwellers, tucked away from posh tourist resorts and invisible to policy makers are the rubbish dumps in the cities of South Asia. But the thick wall of apathy cracked on April 14 when a 300 ft high mountain of garbage, allowed to build up for years in the low-lying Colombo suburb of Meetotamulla in Kolonnawa, came crashing, killing at least 33 persons, destroying 98 homes and displacing 600.
The local people saw this as ‘murder’ rather than accidental death. They had warned the authorities of such a disaster, had protested for years against the open dumping of garbage but the protesters were silenced by arrests and imprisonment.
Until the disaster struck, 1500 tons of municipal waste from the capital city were dumped in the Meetotamulla area occupied mostly by a low-income group. The fact that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had to wear a face mask when visiting the site to offer his condolences for the deaths that occurred, showed what the people had to endure for years.
Meetotamulla families were assured that no more garbage would be dumped in the area. But when garbage was taken to other areas like Kotikawatte, another Colombo suburb, people protested. As a result, a gazette notification was issued making garbage collection an essential service and prohibiting protest against garbage disposal.
There is a dire need to modernize the garbage removal process and provide dignity to the labour, thereby preventing garbage collectors from handling trash with their bare hands as is often done. The scant regard for an adequate buffer zone around landfills is another universal problem in South Asia where encroachment and urbanization are major challenges.
Compared to rest of the region, the largely non-consumerist Bhutan seems to have a clear vision. It aims to be a zero-waste country by 2030 by prioritizing composting. This is on par with its policies relating to environmental protection with 72% of the country being under forest cover and approximately 60% categorized as protected areas. Bhutan banned plastic in 1999, re-enforced the ban in 2005 and 2009 for better practical measures, and further discouraged plastic under its waste prevention and management regulation of 2012. Although the country faces a resource constraint in monitoring public compliance towards its policies, Bhutan is ahead of the rest of South Asia. It has a political and national will to pre-empt disaster before it strikes.
India, the second most populous country in the world, last year revised its solid waste management policy of 2000, stressing on composting and civilian responsibility. But still un-sanitized open garbage mounds abound.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests in India in April 2016 statement pointed out that of the 62 million tonnes of waste generated in the country annually, 5.6 million tonnes are plastic waste and 0.17 million tons are biomedical waste.
According to the statement which quoted Minister of State of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Shri Prakash Javadekar, of the 43 million tons per annum that is generated only 75 to 80 % get collected and only 22 to 28 % is processed and treated. According to Javadekar waste generation in India is expected to increase from 62 million tonnes to about 165 tonnes in 2030.
The Hindustan Times in a 2016 February article titled Gone to waste: How India is drowning in garbage, points out that a common problem of landfills is that people live in close proximity with many of the old dumps not having buffer zones. The waste left to rot in the three Mumbai dumps of Deonar, Mulund and Kanjur Marg have created higher incidences of respiratory and skin diseases, dysentery and poisoning among the people living around the dumps, the Hindustan Times noted.
In dealing with the scourge of plastic, India had taken concrete steps in January 2017, banning all forms of disposable plastic in New Delhi, prohibiting the use of plastic cutlery, bags and other plastic items.
Nepal banned plastic bags in July 2016. In a significant step, plastic bag manufacturers who gave up plastic products to start eco-friendly enterprises were told they will have to pay only 1 per cent customs duty.
Although Pakistan introduced a ban on the manufacturing and usage of plastic in 2015 its actual implementation is seen as weak. In Maldives, a public campaign kicked off in 2016 to ban plastic bags by 2020. According to the Maldives Customs Service, in 2015, over 66 million bags worth over MVR 17 million were imported, with most of the bags ending up in the ocean.
In Sri Lanka, plastic has a free rein in the form of plastic bags, lunch sheets and plastic bottles, which are used daily in over-abundance. A key issue faced in South Asia is that recycling has not been incorporated in the national ethic. Although there are diverse private recycling initiatives, many of them unique, they are mostly at a micro level and need to tie up with large industries. India seem to have the most advanced Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling, with around 90% of its PET waste recycled, according to a study done in 2016 by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – National Chemical Laboratory (NCL).
Meanwhile, the Dawn newspaper in Pakistan in a report published in August 2016 warned that Pakistan’s solid waste management problem was assuming ‘crisis proportions’ equating it to be on par with tragedies that have afflicted Karachi over decades, such as crime and terrorism.
“In neighbourhoods across the city — from the enclaves of the elite to the sprawling urban slums — there are mounds of garbage piling up everywhere, with the provincial government and municipal authorities at sea about how to solve the problem,” the newspaper stated pointing out that there is no reliable data about the amount of solid waste the metropolis generates on a daily basis. Estimates have suggested that it runs into thousands of tonnes. State-sponsored cleanliness drives have produced no lasting results, the newspaper noted.
Nepal, a key tourist destination of the region, lacks a cohesive system that will prevent the country from being a virtual open garbage dump. Technically and financially constrained municipalities are still practicing roadside waste pickup from haphazard mounds of trash.
Similarly, the Maldives, a haven for foreigners, is slowly being lapped up by the tides of garbage which is washing up its beaches and threatening the country’s main income source of tourism. In Maldives, the politicization of waste management policies, which gets scrapped after a shift of political power, is a major problem.
The disaster of Healthcare Waste Management in South Asia
If the garbage disposal in South Asia is bad then even more horrendous is its lack of planned medicinal waste disposal.
A 2006 research paper by C. Visvanathan & Radha Adhikari on Healthcare Waste Management in South Asia points out that healthcare waste is recklessly disposed into the municipal solid waste landfill or open dumpsites in most South Asian countries.
It further points out that mushrooming clinics and health centers, often unregistered, have created environmental havoc by disposing bio-medical waste irresponsibly, contributing to the spread of communicable diseases. Waste management, even in government hospitals, is less than satisfactory, it notes.
In Bangladesh where around 255 tons of medicinal waste is generated in the capital of Dhaka, only a few hospitals have onsite management systems such as waste segregation, burning, burial and autoclave, Visvanathan & Adhikari point out in their report. Solid waste, saline bags, and non-sharps are disposed of in an improper way exposing waste pickers who sort this waste and sell what could be recycled, to injury and sickness.
In Sri Lanka although regulations have been gazetted by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), stating that improper disposal of clinical waste is an offense, it remains as a problematic area in practice with few local strategies adopted to manage clinical waste in a cost effective and speedy manner.
A 2010 report in the State run Sunday Observer newspaper in Sri Lanka focusing on the now infamous Meetotamulla garbage dump and the rag pickers of the area, point out how hospital waste and human intestines are found in the garbage.
“Stepping on to the garbage dump and walking through the stinking rubbish is like walking through hell. The rubbish with left-over eatables, plastic items, zinc sheets, paper, clothes, hospital wastes, e-waste, dead carcasses and human internal organs are strewn all over,” the article noted.
It further described the realities of the dump in reference to hospital waste :
“A truck load of rubbish enters the site. Most of the scavengers stop digging and run behind the truck. Alavudeen too runs after it…According to Alavudeen, sometimes it is risky to walk on the dump as hospital waste – discarded syringes, injections, bottles and even human flesh are in the trash.”
Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, a private company, Finlays Colombo Plc, which in 2009 embarked on a first-ever project to dispose medical waste, discontinued the service in 2013 citing reasons ‘beyond their control.’ Finlays was the only company licensed by the Central Environmental Authority of Sri Lanka to dispose of medical waste.
“In our Sterifirst business, for reasons beyond our control, it became impossible to continue with disposal of the waste product in a responsible way and we were forced to
close the business at the beginning of December,” the company said in its 2013 Annual report.
Finlays gave hospitals containers to segregate the waste and then collected these containers and transported it to the ‘hydroclave’ machine which disinfected the waste before it was taken to a sanitary land fill.
Clearly, if all the required support was provided to such an initiative it could have had a chain effect of other companies coming forward for similar business initiatives that is so needed.
In Nepal a burgeoning urban population and significant expansion of healthcare facilities is seeing a sharp rise of hazardous solid waste generation. The Nepal Health Research Council in Kathmandu, in a 2013 research paper pointed out that only limited information is available on health care waste management practices. Garbage segregation is not happening in a systematic manner, the Nepal Health Research Council pointed out.
In Pakistan, according to the State of Environment Report of 2005, 250,000 tons of medical waste is annually produced from diverse healthcare facilities and diverse reports up to date have reiterated the problem and called for solutions such as a systematic segregation and sanitized disposal.
Meanwhile in Bangladesh’s context, medical waste management means sweeping floors and dumping all sorts of dirt and waste in the nearest dustbin, the Bangladesh news magazine Probe pointed out in a report.
“According to the Health Department, there are 2104 hospitals and clinics and 4492 pathological centers and dental clinics in the country, of which 445 are in Dhaka city. Most of these clinics and pathology centers have sprung up like mushrooms and do not have any kind of waste management facilities. Doctors and nurses are also indifferent about the matter,” the report pointed out.
Since the mid-1980s, South Korea has seen its landfill rates drop from over 90 per cent to under 10 per cent, as the Waste Management Review pointed out in 2015, while its recycling rates have grown from under 10 per cent to over 80 per cent.
Singapore, despite the challenge of handling a high turnout of waste in a limited space, is a model of integrated planning as it moves towards the goals of zero waste and zero landfill. Singapore presently follows mainly waste-to-energy refuse through its incineration plants.
Japan has a fundamental law for establishing a sound material-cycle society. On an international level, Japan proposed the “3R Initiative” (reduce, reuse, and recycle) at a G8 summit in 2004 to globally promote the 3Rs with the objectives of reducing the amount of waste created. Sweden which practices recycling with strong investment from the government, has run out of garbage and has to import rubbish to keep its recycling plans going.
The difference between South Asia and these countries is not a mere matter of having the money to invest in globally accepted practices of garbage disposal and innovative recycling policies.What South Asia needs is the political will to lead towards fostering a responsible waste disposal practice. What the regionsquanders in corruption, waste and political indifference, can surely be recycled to be put to honorable use.