Nepal | July 11, 2020

Municipal solid waste management: Discourage Plastic Use

countries today are staring at another crisis—of biomedical and plastic waste

Mani Nepal
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Kathmandu, June 29

Even as they struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, countries today are staring at another crisis—of biomedical and plastic waste. Single-use plastics used to make personal protective equipment, face masks, shoe covers and goggles for doctors and healthcare workers are contributing to a huge, increase in medical waste, creating environmental hazards and increasing the risks to waste workers. This is in addition to the waste management challenges that cities are already grappling with, especially of plastic waste.

Plastic waste can take hundreds of years to decompose. Meanwhile, they choke waterways and leach harmful chemicals into the soil and water, affecting terrestrial and aquatic life, ecosystems and human health. Studies suggest that micro-plastics in the human body could alter chromosomes, leading to infertility, obesity and cancer.

Improperly disposed waste ends up blocking urban drainage systems and causes waterlogging and flooding. A study from Bharatpur (Nepal) and Sylhet (Bangladesh) suggests that returns on investments in urban drainage infrastructure could be negated in five years if municipal waste (including plastic) isn’t properly managed.

Similar situations exist in several other cities with unplanned and inadequate drainage infrastructure, as this is a general problem across the region. Extreme events related to climate change, such as high intensity rainfall, can easily overwhelm drainage infrastructure, resulting in waterlogging and localised flooding, which is further aggravated when municipal solid waste is not well managed.

Roughly 70 per cent of municipal household waste in Nepal is organic. If segregated at source, organic waste (mainly kitchen waste) can be converted into compost and used in kitchen gardens and farms. Waste to energy is another option for managing organic waste. Segregation at source also lowers waste management costs for municipalities and extends the life of landfill sites.

In rural areas, organic waste is not a problem since food waste is used for animal feed, and other organic waste is composted. Most metal waste is reused or recycled. However, single-use plastics have extremely low recyclability rate. With rapid urbanisation and changing consumer habits, single-use plastic waste has rapidly increased as packaged foods have become a big part of our way of life, further aggravating the plastic litter crisis and pollution of the environment. Today, one would be hard-pressed to find a place untouched by plastic waste pollution.

There are two ways to discourage use of single-use plastics – banning their use, or making them expensive. Bans on single-use plastic are in place in some municipalities in Nepal, with mixed success. However, very few municipalities (e.g., Ilam and Dhankuta) have succeeded in enforcing the bans while also ensuring availability of affordable substitutes. In the current situation, it is nearly impossible to find substitutes for all kinds of single-use plastic.

Besides, plastic items are cheap compared to substitutes. To make matters worse, retailers do not charge separately for plastic bags, so consumers are happy to take them without a second thought. If they were made expensive, retailers would start charging extra, forcing customers to pay for plastic bags each time or use re-useable bags. This second option, of raising the price of plastic bags, is the more logical option to reduce plastic waste. Recycling is another option, but not all plastic waste is recyclable. The global recycle rate is so low that only 10 per cent or less of plastic produced worldwide is recycled.

Taxing raw materials used for producing single-use plastic items provides a way out. There are four benefits of such extra tariffs: it increases the price of single-use plastic items, discouraging their use; encourages recycling when virgin raw material becomes expensive; provides an incentive for substitutes; and generates revenue that can be used for financing municipal solid (plastic) waste management.

Given the federal structure of the country and the heterogeneity in geography and population density, granting exclusive authority to local municipalities to tax single-use plastics is an option. However, cross-border movement of goods makes it harder to enforce such local level tax on single-use plastics. Therefore, a centralised tariff on raw material imports used to produce single-use plastic items is a more feasible alternative.

Cities spend a significant amount of money to collect and dump municipal solid waste in Nepal. In 2018/19, Kathmandu Metropolitan City spent Rs 550 million, over 4% of its budget, just to collect and dump municipal solid waste in landfills. Other newly formed municipalities in Nepal may not have such resources at their disposal, since solid waste management isn’t a high priority and there are competing demands on limited budgets. Extra budgetary support from the central government could help them in managing waste better.

One estimate suggests that recovering and recycling plastic from the waste stream can generate revenue to cover a significant part of the cost of managing plastic waste. A less than 1 per cent additional tariff on imported plastic raw materials can help fill the remaining revenue gap to manage single-use plastic waste across the country. Since single-use plastic is extremely harmful to the environment, it is easier to justify such an additional tariff, similar to the taxes on alcohol and tobacco.

An estimate on the value of cleaner neighbourhoods from Nepal suggests that residents place a higher price premium (25–57%) on housing units in clean neighbourhoods, which means better returns for homeowners. This is also good news for cities since this reduces waterlogging and flood risks due to extreme climatic events, such as intense rainfall, and enhances the revenue base.

For these various reasons, eliminating plastic litter and managing solid waste should be a higher priority for municipal authorities across the country. During the pandemic, it is even more important that municipal authorities follow and enforce standard guidelines and practices for the safe disposal of medical waste and the protection of waste workers.

Mani Nepal is the programme coordinator of SANDEE and lead economist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).


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