KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Every day, Nepal produces 2,000 tonnes of solid waste across its 58 municipalities, yet it lacks an efficient system to manage that waste. Renewable energy experts call it a “waste of waste,” as the trash could easily be converted into power and compost.
The energy generated could be fed into the national grid, they say, helping reduce Nepal’s persistent problem of power outages. The compost could enable millions of smallholder farmers to overcome an acute shortage of fertiliser.
“It’s a win-win situation in every way, and we have to act now to make our waste management both an environmental and economic success story,” said Sumitra Amatya, executive director of the Solid Waste Management Technical Support Centre (SWMTSC), a state body that works with municipalities and village development committees across the country.
Waste collection from households, public areas and commercial sites has improved in recent years, thanks to the efforts of municipalities, non-governmental organisations and the private sector. SWMTSC has helped municipalities set up teams of waste collectors and train households to put their garbage in plastic bags or buckets near their homes for collection. Previously, much of the waste produced ended up on the roadsides.
But despite the improvements, most of the collected waste is still eventually dumped on riverbanks and open land, or in open pits.
Only six municipalities use sanitary landfill sites for final disposal, according to a 2012 report by New Delhi-based consulting firms IPE Global and Environment Resource Management. The study also found that municipalities spend only 5 to 10 percent of their waste management budgets on the ultimate disposal of waste. In contrast, 60 to 70 percent goes on sweeping the streets and collecting trash, and a further 20 to 30 percent on transportation.
So far, few efforts have been made to convert the country’s annual production of over a half million tonnes of solid waste into energy or compost.
HOSPITAL LEADS THE WAY
One hospital, however, is helping lead a change in the way waste is handled.
“The potential of producing waste energy is huge and I don’t know why it is taking so long to introduce one simple (system for) solid waste management in this country,” Mahesh Nakarmi, director of the waste management programme at Health Care Foundation-Nepal (HECAF), told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A pioneer in medical waste management, Nakarmi and his team of young graduates and interns have turned around the situation at Bir Hospital, the country’s oldest hospital and one of its largest. Notorious in the past for hygiene problems, Bir now has a state-of-the-art solid waste management system.
The hospital produces 500 kg of waste every day. Under the guidance of HECAF, hospital staff now segregate the waste. Medical equipment is sterilised in a pressurised vessel . Organic waste goes into a biogas plant to produce energy.
Cotton, gauze, bandages, rags and unwanted bed sheets are used to produce compost. The remaining waste – including plastic, rubber, metal, paper and bottles – is sold to a private waste collector, generating an extra $500 each month.
“We utilise 100 percent of all the waste,” explained Nakarmi. “The hospital’s investment in waste management is a very successful venture.”
Yet most hospitals, including private ones, have yet to follow Bir’s example, and continue to burn medical and other waste in the open air.
SORTING THE TRASH
One of the best ways to manage solid waste is to segregate at its source. This barely happens in Nepal, and is something the government wants to change through a combination of public education and legislation.
Earlier this month, the government enacted the 2011 Waste Management Act. This allows municipal authorities to penalise waste collection companies and households for reckless dumping, with fines of up to $1,500.
“This is not about punishing people, but rather encouraging them to support the government in its waste management efforts - and they can contribute by starting to segregate their waste,” said the SWMTSC’s Amatya.
Less than 30 percent of households in urban areas do so, according to her office. Most sorting takes place in rural areas, where villagers feed livestock with organic leftovers.
Despite public awareness campaigns, there has been little change in household attitudes to managing waste. Residents tend to dispose of their garbage by burning it or throwing it away in any open space, municipal offices say.
But the government hopes this will start to change, thanks to international investment in producing energy from waste.
“We have seen a lot of interest in the private sector to promote renewable energy by utilising the waste we have, and we are positive we can scale up,” said Samir Thapa, deputy director of the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC).
AEPC - the main government agency for renewable energy - will work closely with the World Bank this year to facilitate the involvement of the private sector in developing a waste-to-energy market.
The project will receive $8 million from the “Scaling up Renewable Energy” window of the Climate Investment Funds, a $7.6 billion international financing mechanism to support low-carbon development and adaptation to climate change in developing countries.
“This is a new category of business, and what we are trying to do is catalyse large-scale commercial waste energy systems,” Ashish Shrestha, operations analyst at the World Bank’s South Asia Sustainable Development Unit, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in Kathmandu.
Applications have been invited for private companies produce large-scale energy from waste, and the selection of the firms will be based on the quality of their proposed waste management technology and the project’s commercial viability to help ensure its sustainability, as well as its environmental friendliness.
The success of the initiative will be judged on the extent to which the companies help increase access to energy, reduce waste by recycling and reduce carbon emissions. Success will be measured in reduced volumes of waste, increased power generation and better public access to energy.
The aim is to attract additional funding of $32 million to make a total of at least $40 million available for the waste-to-energy initiative.
“This is a great business idea for social entrepreneurship,” said Anil Chitrakar, a prominent Nepalese environmentalist who also works as a consultant to the World Bank on the waste-to-energy project.
Entrepreneurs who could benefit may include the 15,000 poor families who already make a living by collecting and selling segregated industrial and commercial wastes like metals, plastics, rubber, paper, textiles, glass and leather.
Making the programme work on a large scale will require a high-enough price for the power produced, Chitrakar said. Companies who may become involved say they want more support from the government to make the project work, including subsidies, a 10-year tax exemption and an acceptable Power Purchasing Agreement (PPA).
NEED FOR GOVERNMENT SUPPORT?
The government has so far prevaricated over the PPA, a cause of concern for the private sector, which is pushing for a price of at least $0.09-0.10 per unit of energy sold to the national grid. The government already pays around $0.09 per unit to hydropower plants.
“There is now a more encouraging environment by the government, but it needs to decide on the PPA if it wants to attract more private investment,” said Mahendra Man Singh, managing director of TMB-Energietechnik, which focuses on using biomass to produce energy, including waste from agriculture.
If the PPA is put in place, Singh said he plans to set up a 720 kilowatt biomass plant that will supply 4.5 million units to the national grid each year.
Singh believes using agro-waste to produce renewable energy could help protect the country’s forests, as firewood now provides close to 80 percent of energy needs in rural areas.
“Converting waste to energy is very expensive and the risk of investment is very high, but we are still positive about it, hoping for government support,” said Puja Chand Thakur, director of Gold Rush, a company specialising in solid waste management.
The young woman entrepreneur hopes to invest over $25 million in a 7 megawatt plant that would use steam turbines to convert waste into energy.
While waiting for a government decision on the PPA, some businesses are already starting waste-to-energy projects. For example, in the Tarai region, home to nearly half of Nepal’s 29 million people, food and agro-industries are already using their waste to generate power without connecting to the national grid.
But there is a limit to what can be achieved without a stable regulatory environment and incentives provided by the state, investors say.
“We need more political will from the parties running the government, and that is a major obstacle to everything we do,” said the SWMTSC’s Amatya.
Naresh Newar is a Kathmandu-based writer with an interest in climate change issues. This article is part of a series funded by the Climate Investment Funds.