Pakistan, like other developing countries, lacks a waste management infrastructure, which is increasingly creating serious environmental and public health problems. Not only does the country generate an unmanageable amount of solid waste every day but worryingly, has become the world’s foremost dumping ground of hazardous waste materials. Against this backdrop, the approval of the National Waste Management Policy 2022 by the Ministry of Climate Change is a creditable development, however, it needs some realistic considerations.
Pakistan is already incapable to manage its own waste, generated locally. The country annually produces 30 million tonnes of solid waste and much of it doesn’t reach final disposal sites. This generated waste should wind up in landfills, incinerators or recycling centres, but it is collected mostly by scavengers who segregate it according to their own interests before bringing it to disposal points.
Besides, only a handful of cities have established landfill sites to dispose of waste collection, while all semi-urban, rural and northern regions lack facilities to optimise waste collection and treat it properly.
Clearly, we are unable to manage locally generated waste, but more disturbingly have been made a dumping ground for global hazardous waste. According to Volza’s global import data of material waste, “Pakistan is the largest importer of material waste, which accounts for 58 shipments followed by Ireland with 47 and Sweden with 42 shipments till June 26, 2022.”
One of the world’s largest dumping grounds, Pakistan lacks the capacity to safely process hazardous garbage
Recently the Senate Standing Committee on Climate Change has been briefed that the United Kingdom alone dumped nearly 40,000 tonnes of waste in Pakistan last year, a country which lacks the capacity to separate regular and hazardous waste, resulting in serious environmental and health concerns. Other than that, 25,000 tonnes came from Iran and nearly 20,000 tonnes from the UAE.
Despite being a signatory to the Basel Convention, Pakistan is being used by developed nations as a dumping ground for over 80,000 tons of electronic and plastic waste, which creates environmental and health hazards. Since recycling e-waste requires higher costs, developed countries tend to dump their waste in underdeveloped countries.
American, European and even Asian countries are using Pakistan to dump used computers and old electronics. And, due to improper disposal in the country, metals like lead, mercury and copper find their way into ground water and soil by leaching through the landfills.
Hazardous wastes are dangerous materials that could be toxic, ignitable, corrosive and reactive. They can take the form of solids, liquids, sludge and contained gasses, generated primarily by chemical production, manufacturing and other industrial activities. Examples include asbestos, hospital waste, electronics including computers, TVs, cell phone batteries, mercury-containing wastes such as thermometers, fluorescent lighting, switches, pesticides, cleaning and polishing chemicals, motor oils, kerosene, petrol, aerosols, propane cylinders, solvent-based paints.
No doubt there is a big untapped potential in our recycling industry to turn waste into profitable products. However, waste collection is an informal and unregulated sector in Pakistan. Factories here lack formal facilities, technology and technical knowledge of recyclability, that’s why are mostly incapable of producing sustainable recycled products.
Most of the waste, especially electronic, is used by the recycling industries in Karachi, Lahore, Sialkot, Gujranwala and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. These recycling industries extract metals such as gold, copper, and aluminium from the imported waste and then let the rest be dumped anywhere untreated.
Pakistan is also importing plastic waste which even includes contaminated and hazardous hospital waste, sewage pipes, hazardous PVC scrap along with a plethora of other toxic waste without conducting any laboratory tests. While almost most countries are banning the import of plastic scrap, Pakistan is one of the few still allowing it.
Prioritising the trapping of imported hazardous waste materials, the Minister of Climate Change Senator Sherry Rehman points out “our country has been importing all kinds of bundled waste from different parts of the world with an average annual tonnage of 80,000. To tackle this, we have devised a long-overdue policy.”
Since the federal cabinet approved the National Hazardous Waste Management Policy 2022 with consensus, it will be passed on to the provinces and implemented at the federal level for international compliance. The policy hasn’t been made public so far. However, a specialised directorate for managing hazardous waste is said to be established in the ministry to implement all the relevant provisions of the policy.
The primary and significant task of the National Hazardous Waste Management Policy is to reduce the negative impact of waste mismanagement on the environment, economy and society. But it isn’t achievable without synergy among local, provincial and national efforts, plans and programmes in implementing waste management policies.
The collection, treatment and disposal of waste material have been causing significant harm to human health and the environment. And, we need to get serious about managing this waste, tracking, separating and then treating it sustainably, instead of the unscientific and unregulated manner it has been handled over the years.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 25th, 2022