The K2 mountain, at over 8500 metres above sea level, is the second-tallest mountain on Earth. Double that, and you have the amount of plastic waste Pakistan generates each year. This adds up to more than 3.3 million tonnes of plastic annually, Ehsan Gul, Head of Experimentation at UNDP Pakistan Accelerator Lab says.

The waste crisis is complex and severe, but there is hope for change. This starts with improving the current waste management practices, promoting a culture of recycling, and influencing policies to scale sustainable practices.

Ehsan shares how UNDP Pakistan is tackling the problem of waste in cities, starting with the city of Rahim Yar Khan.

The hoo-ha with non-recyclables 

Recyclables ultimately end up somewhere, but the same cannot be said for non-recyclables, Ehsan notes. The latter is “often left spewing on roadsides or dumped into water bodies, so we want to find proper channels for them,” he adds.

To deal with this, Rahim Yar Khan is finding innovative ways to store and manage non-recyclables.

First, the city can tap on cement plants that burn plastics to produce energy. This keeps non-recyclables out of dumping sites and reduces the city’s dependence on fossil fuels to power the cement plants.

Second, it can break down plastic waste into gas, which then fuels portable heaters, stovetops, and ovens. This overcomes the problems of having nowhere to dispose of non-recyclables and gas shortages.

Third, the city can convert the heat energy from incineration into electricity. While this does not negate the method’s harmful contribution to air pollution, it maximises the benefits of incineration by capturing power that would otherwise have gone up in smoke.

But the above solutions may be expensive to implement and maintain. UNDP Pakistan is working with Unilever to channel the revenue from selling recyclables to cover the cost of processing non-recyclables.

The project not only creates a sustainable waste cycle but is also economical. “We can deal with double the number of plastics at the cost of managing recyclables only,” Ehsan explains.

Getting on the same page 

There are also plans to standardise waste collection in Rahim Yar Khan. This can look like public waste collectors reaching every household and operating on a fixed schedule, for example.

In Pakistan, public waste collectors and informal groups who make a living from waste collection travel from door to door gathering garbage. Sometimes, there may be an overlap between these groups so one party makes a wasted trip (no pun intended).

But other times, governments with insufficient budgets may not assign public waste collectors to certain regions. This means that there are places where no one deals with waste at all, leaving the mounting rubbish dump to fester.

“The biggest problem with the waste management system is that it is broken and disjointed, which is why it is crucial to close these gaps,” Ehsan shares.

UNDP Pakistan is working with the city council to add transport and hauling services in the middle of the waste collection journey too. This will prevent “garbage bags from leaking all over the place as they are dealt with on the go,” he adds.

The city is also testing a segregation facility where machines automatically group waste into different categories. This is a step up from informal collectors separating materials such as glass, metal, and paper by hand.

Automation can help the city process a larger volume of recyclables with greater accuracy, while manual classification may be imperfect and less efficient.

Devising policy

A part of UNDP Pakistan’s work also looks at finetuning policies to scale and sustain waste management practices.

For a start, Pakistan has implemented a nationwide ban on the use of plastics “but traces of this policy are near to nonexistent in the smaller cities,” Ehsan says. A lack of suitable alternatives to plastic could be one reason for this.

“We found that vendors who sell dairy products and meat cannot replace plastics with cloth or net bags as they are prone to leakage,” he elaborates. As a result, these vendors lose business to their counterparts who still use plastic bags.

To work around this, “perhaps we can increase the quality of the plastic bags so that they are more reusable,” Ehsan proposes.

In the first step of scaling, UNDP Pakistan will be piloting all initiatives for a quarter of Rahim Yar Khan’s population. If successful, they will then scale them city-wide.

“We hope to outline plans to achieve at least ten waste-free cities in Pakistan by 2025,” Ehsan highlights.

Can a leopard change its spots? 

But building waste management infrastructure and influencing policy is not sufficient. “More importantly, the country needs to rethink its relationship with plastics and embrace a shift in mindset,” he emphasises.

UNDP Pakistan is partnering with the Collect and Recycle Alliance to eliminate packaging waste by exploring alternatives to plastic.

For example, the alliance is looking at aseptic carton packaging, which is made up of a unique blend of paperboard, polyethylene, and alumiunium. Recycling facilities can convert paperboard into paper products and the remaining materials into panel boards and roof sheets.

Recycling plastic is not as straightforward, however. Different types of plastic are combined during manufacturing, making it a challenge to break down the individual components, Stena Recycling reported.

At an industrial level, UNDP Pakistan is running a behaviour campaign to promote recycling and adopt more sustainable practices.

“How can we advocate for waste segregation at the production site? How can we mete out fines to hold companies accountable for unsustainable practices?” Ehsan poses some considerations in encouraging corporations to manage their waste better.

The idiom “moving mountains” refers to achieving something that seems virtually impossible. Pakistan is taking this on literally as it tackles K2 mountains-worth of rubbish. Building waste management infrastructure, refining policy, and rethinking our relationship with plastics will help.

Feature image taken from UNDP Pakistan’s website.