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Nepal’s plastic problem mirrors SE Asian economies’ challenges, but it can change its narrative

For decades, low awareness and a near dysfunctional waste management system has resulted in litter either thrown into or dumped on the river banks throughout the valley, which ultimately flows down to the Bagmati river.

Written by Abhimanyu Chakravorty | New Delhi |
Updated: April 16, 2019 4:19:51 pm
Plastic dumped along the hillside in Kathmandu. (Source: Abhimanyu Chakravorty)

The Himalayan country may not be geographically imposing, but its plastic waste footprint certainly is. Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, with a population pushing over 2.5 million, alone uses around 4,700,000 to 4,800,000 plastic bags daily, as per Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). In Nepal, at least 16 per cent of urban waste is comprised of plastic, which translates to 2.7 tonnes of daily plastic garbage production.

For decades, low awareness and a near dysfunctional waste management system has resulted in litter either thrown into or dumped on the river banks throughout the valley, which ultimately flows down to the Bagmati river. Considered to be Nepal’s holiest river, Bagmati is choked with plastic waste.

As per an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report, solid waste management in Nepal has been given low priority because the demand for other public services is higher in many municipalities. The report titled ‘Solid Waste Management in Nepal’ said that due to low priority to waste management, “some local bodies are experiencing difficulties in developing coherent management plans due to the lack of SWM baseline information. For designing and implementing any waste management plan with a focus on resource recovery methods, it’s essential to know the quantity and composition of MSW generated.”

ALSO READ: Part 1 – 5 countries, 13,000 km, 1 goal: Challenge the everyday use of plastic

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But the implementation of sound waste management rules is easier said than done, especially when an average household’s only concern is to make ends meet.

“People are more concerned about daily survival, not garbage, hygiene and sanitation. If basic necessities aren’t met how can anyone think of anything else at all,” said a shopkeeper at Kathmandu’s Kirtipur Heritage temple area.

The Nepal government’s Solid Waste Management Rules 2070 (2013) clearly state that the urban local bodies (ULBs) will conduct programmes to increase people’s awareness about segregation of waste at source to reduce the quantum of solid waste. It also says that the “responsibility of managing the chemical or harmful solid waste shall be of the concerned generator”.


ALSO READ: Part 2 -Thailand is addicted to plastic, but here’s how it can kick the habit

But just Like India, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, their MSW rules also lack teeth.

Kathmandu’s only landfill at Sisdole, which is already filled way beyond its capacity, is evidence to the non-compliance of waste segregation at source by households, industries and hotels. The stink from the landfill was so unbearable for communities living around the area that some residents decided to also give parts of their land as an alternate dumping site. To tackle the Valley’s waste management woes, Nepal’s Ministry of Urban Development is likely to prepare a design for construction of another landfill at Bancharedanda, Nuwakot.


One reason behind this mess is a lack of source segregation in Nepal. “If you don’t segregate waste at source, you can’t take out recyclable materials out of it. We want to change the perspective about waste and about people working in this sector and apply the right mindset and approach,” said Raghavendra Mahto, co-founder of Doko Recyclers in Kathmandu. Doko Recyclers were my collaboration partners in Nepal.

ALSO READ: Part 3 – Cambodia is drowning in its waste, here’s how it can plug the plastic flow

In essence, Doko Recyclers implement end-to-end waste management systems at households, corporates and conduct training and workshops to employees to how to segregate waste properly. “We also focus on infrastructure developments, suppose you have bins in your office, you need to have separate bins for wet and dry waste. we provide collection service for recyclable waste, which we get to our materials recovery facility, we sort the waste as per grade and type and then pass it on to recycling factories which recycle them for us,” added Mahto.

Kathmandu’s challenges, as with most of Nepal, are almost a mirror reflection of South and Southeast Asian economies: pressure on infrastructure due to rapid urbanisation, low awareness levels, and poor implementation of solid waste management rules. “Most of Nepal does not have the infrastructure to address the waste management issue. In villages and mountains, its either burn or bury,” said Amod Karmacharya of Clean Up Nepal, an NGO that works to provide an enabling environment to improve solid waste management and water, sanitation and hygiene in the country by working with local communities and relevant stakeholders.

“Cities like Kathmandu, however, has private waste companies that provide services to household and business to manage their waste. Having said, there is however a systemic issue and question of proper waste disposal. Kathmandu needs to address the proper disposal of the waste and have every household and business subscribe to waste management services. That will be the priority,” added Karmacharya.


Also Read: Part 4 – Laos’ trash problem is an ecological time bomb, here’s how it can course-correct

There are ample similarities and opportunities in waste management across South and Southeast Asia which means that economies like India, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, can collectively adopt the best waste management practices and draw from each others’ strengths. Equally important is the social acceptance of the fact that there’s value in waste, and to adopt a circular economy, one doesn’t need to upend their current lifestyle completely.


The world is gradually waking up to the plastic pollution crisis in our oceans, and it’s time we ask ourselves this question: can we enjoy this plastic and still hope for a clean environment?

This article is the last of a five-part series documenting the individual waste management case studies of India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal.

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First published on: 16-04-2019 at 04:12:32 pm
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