Open burning of waste is rife across the country due to lack of management mechanisms

Every evening around 5 p.m., local traders burn solid waste – plastics, paper, cardboard – in Simikot, Humla.

“Traders burn the waste they collect throughout the day in front of their stores. There is no waste management policy in Simikot, so the only way people can get rid of it is to throw it away or burn it, ”says Kritagya Kriti, 21, volunteer at Himalayan Education And Development. (HEAD Nepal), a non-profit organization that works for people with disabilities in Simikot.

A similar scene is seen in Myagde Rural Municipality, Tanahun. In addition to daily residential waste, medical waste is also incinerated in villages.

“Incineration is the only solid waste management mechanism here. What is even more concerning is that medical waste from the local health post is also being burned. The municipality does not collect waste. There are also no public trash cans to start with, ”says Saurav Lamichhane, 21, who works in rural education.

Solid waste management across Nepal is a major concern for health and the environment. The crisis that urban centers had faced for years has now reached rural areas.

In villages and on the outskirts of cities, where there are no waste collection mechanisms, people have no choice but to burn solid waste, including medical waste.

Many municipalities collect solid waste only for incineration in collection centers, not realizing that burning plastics emits dangerous chemicals and carcinogenic particles.

“Since I gave birth, there has been a lot of non-recyclable plastic waste, such as diapers, food packaging plastics, etc. It was a bit difficult for us to burn everything in our backyard like we did before, that’s why we started giving the trash to the trash collectors, “said Sarmila Subedi, a housewife from the Municipality of Ramdhuni, Sunsari who migrated to Kathmandu five months. There are. “But in the end, they too burn it on the banks of the river.”

Research shows that open burning is more common when waste collection services are scarce, expensive and unavailable. The study shows that due to the lower frequency of waste collection, or efficiency for that matter, in suburban areas compared to the core of the municipality, solid waste is burned more in these areas.

However, even in the metropolitan city of Kathmandu, which has 77 organizations collecting waste throughout the city, open burning is ubiquitous, in homes, collection centers or incinerators.

Nepal Waste Map, a digital platform that allows citizens to report irregular or untimely burning, dumping and waste collection services, registers 70 waste burning points in Kathmandu alone.

Sustainability experts argue that open burning is also fueled by the idea that burning is the easiest way to get rid of waste, thus maintaining sanitation.

This perception is misinformed and dangerous for humans and the environment, according to experts.

“People don’t realize that by burning garbage, you are simply transporting garbage from the earth to the air we breathe, which will ultimately affect our health,” said Shilshila Acharya, director of Avni Ventures, a waste management company.

Not just the public, even policy makers and decision makers have the same perception of waste management which affects the waste collection mechanisms used at various levels of government.

“Having worked with a lot of decision makers at this point, most of them just want a quick fix; a way to make waste disappear in the blink of an eye. And one solution they see is to cremate it, ”Acharya said. “The authorities invite foreign countries such as China, Japan, Korea and Finland to install incinerators across Nepal. They are so proud of these facilities that cost millions of dollars and have fancy names without understanding the harmful gases these hot machines emit.

Incinerators are known emitters of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), toxic chemicals that harm human health and the environment.

Experts say incineration could make the waste disappear, but the consequences are long-term and insidious. POPs released during combustion can be transported long distances by air and can bioaccumulate in terrestrial and aquatic food webs, which can have a negative impact on human and animal health. They also have toxic effects such as immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, developmental toxicity, carcinogenicity, mutagenicity and endocrine disruption.

Nepal has been a signatory of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants since 2007 and has committed to phase out the release and use of various chemicals such as polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDD) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDF) ).

“Even the most advanced incinerators release dioxins and furans, and these are known carcinogens and persistent organic pollutants. As a signatory to the Stockholm Convention, Nepal is breaking the convention by allowing more than 100 incinerators to operate across Nepal, ”said Ram Charitra Sah, executive director of the Center for Public Health and Environmental Development ( CEPHED).

There is no data on the total number of operational incinerators in Nepal, according to Indu Bikram Joshi, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment.

“Hospitals and municipalities have installed incinerators at their own capacity, but we have no data. In order for an incinerator to be approved, certain criteria must be met, as stated in the guidelines, ”said Joshi, referring to the guidelines on healthcare waste management (2014).

However, the ministry does not have mechanisms to monitor incinerators and their emissions.

“We can only check the temperature at the moment. If the temperature is above 1,100 degrees Celsius, it does not emit persistent organic pollutants, but there is no way to directly monitor emissions from the incinerators, ”Joshi said.

A study by CEPHED and the International Pollutant Elimination Network (IPEN) found that most healthcare facilities openly burn or dump medical waste.

In addition, ashes from incinerators are discharged into rivers or dumped in municipal mixed waste containers. The study found a lack of regulatory standards for incinerators or alternative measures and adequate awareness of the problem.

Not only incinerators, but the burning of solid waste at household level also emits POPs and carcinogens.

“Burning everyday household plastic and medical waste is extremely dangerous. Soft plastics such as surgical gloves, blood bags, tubes, cookie wrappers, and plastic bags, among others, contain chemicals that release mercury, lead, carcinogens, and POP – dioxins and furans – on combustion, ”said Sah from CEPHED. “And not only are these chemicals harmful, the ash left behind contains concentrated chemicals.”

Local open burning in the absence of waste collection and burning of collected waste in incinerators to manage waste are indicative of poor waste management policies.

Of the 271 municipalities surveyed for the 2020 Waste Management Baseline Survey, 87 municipalities managed waste by burning.

Waste management faces contextual challenges across Nepal, the ultimate flaws of which manifest in the form of black plumes of smoke, experts say.

“Each municipality has its own challenges when it comes to waste management. There are too many private companies operating in the same area in Kathmandu and Bharatpur, ”said Diwakar Adhikari, program manager at Clean Up Nepal, an organization working in solid waste management. “Ilam has been successful in building composting centers and the government has been actively involved in waste management practices, but the public is not showing the same level of commitment. ”

He praised the efforts of the municipality of Waling and their proactivity in considering waste as their own resource, where the municipality took charge of the waste collection process.

“They separate the waste into three categories – organic, plastic, glass – and the waste collection takes place five days a week. Perhaps this is the reason why there are zero waste combustion fireplaces reported in Waling, ”Adhikari said.

Despite the existing waste collection mechanisms in these municipalities, so far 338 burn points in Bharatpur and 18 in Ilam have been reported in the Nepal waste map.

This is why, according to experts, it is necessary to sensitize the public and decision-makers to the impacts of open-air burning.

Since 2020, Acharya, with Avni Center for Sustainability, has trained 1,500 young people in waste management across Nepal.

“We have taught waste management to so many people across Nepal,” she said. “They had no basic concept on it; Either they burned the rubbish or threw it in the rivers, to keep their homes clean.

To prevent open burning, environmentally friendly waste management mechanisms are essential.

“Starting with the sorting of waste at the household level and regular collection of waste,” Acharya said, “waste recovery and recycling should be adopted as opposed to incineration.”

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