How can community-based waste management address Pakistan’s waste crisis?

Published on 16 April 2018

Following our widely cited 2016 Virtuous Circle report on the circular economy in developing countries, in this latest report we make a detailed examination of best-practice in one area of the circular economy: waste management. We conduct a cost-benefit assessment of a community-based approach in Pakistan and assess the feasibility of implementing the same approach in other (poorer) areas of the city. Our study suggests that this approach offers a remarkable ten dollars in benefits for every dollar invested in establishing it. The project reduces greenhouse gas emissions, improves public health and creates jobs; and became self-financing in its third year.

Rubbish in an open area by a housing block in a part of Karachi, Pakistan.

Waste crisis in Pakistan’s informal settlements

In Pakistan, at the time of writing, there was just one sanitary landfill consistent with international standards (in Lahore, opened in April 2016). Although illegal, open dumping and open burning are the most common methods of waste disposal, causing severe environmental degradation, particularly air pollution, and risks to public health. Open burning of waste is estimated to cause 14,000 premature deaths a year in Pakistan and could account for up to one quarter of the nation’s reported carbon emissions, according to recent estimates.

The situation is particularly urgent in informal settlements. Islamabad has 34 of these katchi abadis, which are home to about a third of the city’s population. Many residents are among the most marginalised in the city, including religious and ethnic minorities and those living in extreme poverty. These settlements lack municipal services such as waste collection and are often located close to water courses that contain untreated waste.

Community-based waste management solutions

Rather than waiting for authorities to solve the issue, community-based approaches to waste management address the problem while also creating local jobs.

Community-based approaches also outperform centralised facilities in terms of efficiency and cost. They typically address 80 to 90 per cent of the waste generated by a community, with a residual amount transported to the local dump (or sanitary landfill, if available). These approaches can thus dramatically reduce the need for expensive, centralised facilities, but not eliminate this need entirely. As has been pointed out in the Global Waste Management Outlook ‘decentralised and community-based small-scale facilities can provide a viable and affordable alternative [to centralised facilities],’ especially in locations where economies of scale cannot be realised, such as smaller second- and third-tier cities, or slum areas or large cities. They are also suitable for contexts where local government does not have the capacity to deliver any form of centralised facilities.

Recipe for success: Integrated Resource Recovery Centres

Community-based recycling schemes collect and process waste at a local centre, such as a facility for sorting recyclable material and composting organic waste. So-called Integrated Resource and Recovery Centres (IRRCs) are one example: they are locally based, closed-loop systems operated by (former) informal sector workers in close cooperation with municipal government sanitation workers. Recyclable materials and compost are sold to help finance the centre, and participating households also pay a nominal fee for waste collection. The model originated in Bangladesh in 2007, and was pioneered by the NGO Waste Concern. It has since been effectively replicated in a number of East Asian countries.

The first pilot IRRC in Pakistan was established in Sector G-15, Islamabad, in 2014 by the Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan Memorial Trust (AHKMT), with the support of UNESCAP, Waste Concern (Bangladesh) and UN-Habitat, following the model’s success elsewhere in Asia. Before the IRRC was set up, there was no waste collection, and household waste was dumped outside houses and periodically burned. The IRRC has the capacity to process waste from 3,000 households and is currently operating only at half-capacity.

Costs and benefits

We evaluated the costs and benefits of this IRRC approach and our calculations indicate that the IRRC offers major benefits to society in the form of improved public health and reduced carbon emissions, as well as improved livelihoods. The health effects are attributable to the reduction in open burning and open dumping achieved by the IRRC. The IRRC improves health and well-being in the community four main ways:

  • Reduced air pollution from open burning, with associated reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as particulate matter and other life-threatening pollutants.
  • Improved sanitation, safety and general aesthetics, with associated reductions in diarrhoeal disease.
  • Reduced soil and groundwater contamination from leachate.
  • Creating jobs and improving working conditions for waste operatives.

The centre became self-financing in its third year, through a combination of user fees and selling recyclable material and compost. We evaluate the project from the perspective of a donor assessing whether to provide the initial setup costs and thus focus on the net benefit/ investment ratio, which takes the net benefits for society in each year of the IRRC’s operation and compares this with the initial set-up cost.

The findings are extremely encouraging: Using a 15-year time horizon (on the basis that the IRRC should last for this long), the project exhibits a net benefit/investment ratio of 10:1, such that every dollar invested by a donor yields USD 10 in benefits for society.

Next steps for research and practice

To keep the momentum and build on the positive experience of this pilot initiative, Tearfund, IDS and local partners AHKMT plan to replicate the model in informal settlements in Islamabad.

Currently, two billion people worldwide lack waste collection, and extending collection to these communities would help address multiple targets under the Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), SDG 12 (Sustainable Consumption and Production), SDG 13 (Climate Action), SDG 14 (Marine Life, in the case of settlements on the coast or major rivers) and SDG 15 (Life on Land).

If you would like to join our efforts and support our work to solve the waste crisis and empower poor communities in the Global South, please get in touch with us.

Photo: Waste in an area of Karachi, Pakistan. Zainub Razvi / Flickr / (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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