Why Landfills are not a Sustainable Waste Management Solution

Landfills must always be the last resort when it comes to waste management, not the first!

Throughout this last local election and the month following it, the topic of discussion at every tea shop, dinner table, and gathering was the garbage piling up on the streets of Kathmandu. Why was the waste not being sent to the Sisdol landfill site? That seemed to be the question in everybody’s mind. However, the question we all seem to have missed is whether we should even be sending all of our waste to Sisdol at all.

Starting from June 2005, Sisdol landfill site has been the dumping site for all of Kathmandu Valley’s waste. Originally, the site was built for a period of two years to serve as a temporary location. However, 17 years later, it is still being used as a landfill. Approximately 1,200 tons of urban waste is dumped there daily, and this is causing a lot of health, social, and environmental problems to the people living nearby.

Sildol, for many reasons, is an environmental and social disaster. The smell from the landfill makes living in the area unbearable. The locals from nearby settlements complain that they have to live with the smell constantly, especially when the wind direct the air from the landfill site to their village. Water leaches through the landfill, collecting its pollutants and transporting it to the nearby Kolpu River, causing serious health and environmental risks. Almost every year, people from the nearby settlements organize protests against the landfill site, and this year it even led to clashes with security forces. The scrap collectors scavenging through the waste in the landfill site with little to no personal protection are another tragedy altogether. All of this does not exactly paint a pretty picture of landfill sites in Nepal.

In fact, landfill sites are problematic all around the world, and not just in Nepal. In March and April this year, large fires broke out in the landfill sites in Delhi. Fires broke out in the Ghaziapur landfill site on three different occasions, and a massive fire broke out in Bhalsa landfill site, which took several days to get under control. As organic waste decomposes in landfill sites, it produces methane gas, which is highly flammable. It takes very little for fires to break out. Sometimes, it’s caused by human mistakes, while at other times, the build-up of methane and heat through decomposition ignites landfill fires. In fact, landfill fires are not an uncommon phenomenon, as it has occurred in landfills around the world, including in Panama and the New Providence landfill in the Bahamas.

Many countries around the world are making serious efforts to reduce their dependence on landfill sites. In Europe, in line with the EU Landfill Directive, countries are aiming to reduce the total percentage of waste sent to landfill sites to less than 10% by 2030.

The government, and even individuals, can try multiple options to manage their waste. However, the strategies need to be prioritized from most favorable to least favorable in order to properly manage waste and protect the environment, as well as reduce resource and energy consumption.

The first step in waste management must be to prevent the production of waste altogether. It can be as simple as refusing a polythene bag from the shopkeeper when shopping, or bringing your own water bottle instead of buying mineral water when you’re out and about. Governments can help prevent the production of waste by banning single use plastics, such as polythene bags. Businesses can also contribute. Recently, the Hotel Association of Nepal announced that all of their member hotels would stop the use of single use plastics by 2025. Taking simple steps to reduce the amount of waste created should always be the first step in waste management

Preparing for Reuse
If we cannot prevent producing waste, the next best option is to prepare for reuse. Reusing an item multiple times before it is thrown away increases the life span of the item and prevents us from making more waste than necessary. Middle class families in Nepal give some of the best examples of reuse. We’ve all seen coke bottles filled with water in our fridges. We’ve had our old clothes turned into rags and used for cleaning around the house. We have seen polythene bags from grocery trips being reused multiple times to carry things, or old jars and broken mugs turned into flower pots. By taking these simple steps, we increase the life span and utility of the product.

If both prevention and reuse are not possible, the next best thing is to recycle. Recycling turns waste into a new item, and it is the most environmental-friendly solution for waste disposal. Recycling includes composting, as well, since it involves converting waste to fertilizer. Studies after studies have shown that almost two thirds of waste generated in Nepal is organic waste. So, by composting waste, we can effectively reduce waste being sent to landfill sites by two thirds. Furthermore, recycling companies like Khalisisi and Doko, along with small scrap dealers, have made a business out of collecting recyclables like paper, plastic, metal, and glass. Majority of the items we use these days can and should be recycled.

Resource recovery is the next best thing to do when it comes to waste management, and it is done by turning waste to energy. This can be done by producing refuse-derived fuels, or by using incinerators to burn non-recyclable waste and produce electricity. While energy recovery is a better option than landfill, it is still problematic, as it can cause air pollution and contribute to climate change, as has been the case in Delhi.

The final option, when all else fails, is to dispose of waste, which is where landfill sites come into play. Landfills are the most common form of waste disposal. Landfills need to be well-engineered in order to reduce harmful effects to the environment and health. First of all, the landfill must be located away from geological fault lines, wetlands, and floodplains. The landfill must be designed and operated through proper engineering to prevent the waste and its leachate from entering into nearby water sources. In the case of Sisdol, unfortunately, this is not the case, as the leachate from the landfill has entered the water stream and polluted the environment.

The problem of waste management in Kathmandu Valley is complex, and it will take a lot of effort to properly manage it. However, in order to manage waste without allowing it to affect the environment and our health, we must consider other options, rather than simply dumping our waste in a landfill site.

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