Waste, landfill and the lives of waste pickers

By Pratik Bajracharya
Aug 15, 2021

Society’s ways of producing and devouring products create huge amounts of waste. Unfortunately, the rate of production and consumption cannot be stopped under any circumstances, especially for a developing nation such as Nepal.

Most of us carry a cynical ‘don’t know, don’t care’ attitude when it comes to waste as we throw away leftover, packaging, and discarded materials. These materials end up at what most people call a dumpsite or ‘fohor fyalne thau’. The actual term for disposal of waste is landfill: an engineered site built far from human civilization to isolate our waste. Nepal has only six sanitary landfill sites. The rest of the waste is dumped on open grounds.

During my research on waste pickers and waste management, I visited different cities in the Terai belt to understand the context. The foul smell, scavenger birds hovering, and waste loitering on the pathway easily identified the dumping sites from a great distance.

Normally, people would like to stay away from these dumping sites and can’t imagine working here but waste pickers work here every day recovering recyclable materials. They are the true environmental heroes that reduce waste from landfills and contribute to the circular economy.

Most discarded materials can actually be sold to itinerant buyers and scrap dealers instead of disposing them which end up in landfills. A waste picker in the landfill usually recovers more than 10 kilograms of useful items in a day working for 8 to 10 hours.

Shiva (name changed) is one of the many long servings waste pickers at Bharatpur dumping site on the bank of Narayani river. He starts his day early in the morning and starts sorting plastics, shoes, metals, brass, wires, copper and anything valuable. Though waste picking was initially an urgent job Shiva had to take due to a family problem, he earns more than a 1000 rupees per day from sorting valuable waste.

Waste picking is a tedious job with poor sanitation, but surprisingly there was a small canteen set up by a waste picker inside the landfill. One cannot imagine beginning their entrepreneurial journey from such a place but there are more than 40 waste pickers in Bharatpur dumping site and half of them have tea, snacks in the canteen; a smart way to earn besides recovering waste.

In Bhairahawa, the landfill is located in Paklihawa on the Nepal-India border besides the Tinau river. Both Nepali and Indian citizens recover waste materials there. Most of these waste workers work these jobs due to the freedom it comes with it and a high paying income.

Most dumping sites that do exist lay on the banks of the river polluting the ambient environment. The plastics that we discard mix with the river as they break down to microplastics. These microplastic formations are as a result enter the food chain and the water ecosystem that accumulates onto living beings that consume other living beings causing what is called biomagnification.

I would recommend everyone to visit dumping site or sanitary landfill sites at least once to view the mess that we have created, learn how difficult it is manage these dumping sites, and the work of people who are trying to reduce the waste from these sites. Once we know about all the work that waste pickers put in to keep our cities clean, the society will not look down on this sector. Waste picking is a profession with dignity. Without them, our communities would be a huge pile of dump.

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