Down in the dump: a visit to Kathmandu’s rubbish hole

Yesterday I visited Sisdole where Katmandu’s rapidly filling rubbish dump is located. It is what you might expecte of a rubbish dump: a lot of rubbish, a sickly smell, pipes ventilating gases from putrefaction, trucks delivering more booty at regular intervals, bulldozers flattening it out across the dump. The setting was a bit incongruous: all this among green wooded hillsides and terraced fields. What certainly was not be expected was the 25 or so men, women and children walking around on top of it trying to supplement their income from the recyclable waste they could recover.
It was quite depressing. I walked around for some 20 minutes, feeling a little uncomfortable, taking some pictures and talking to people. They seemed resigned to the disgusting work at hand, slightly cheery in a ke garne (what-to-do) kind of way. But not happy.

Apparently 350 tones of waste is produced by Kathmandu daily. That results in around 50 trucks travelling the uphill then downhill 28km from the city to this rural area. 65% of the waste is organic meaning it could be either composted or used to produce biogas. That is, if it were separated at source.

As new trucks came and reversed down to the site, people waited to attack the new load before it was flattened out. Out of one truck came two fluorescent lighting tubes which a boy picked out, waved around and then promptly smashed, releasing their mercury containing powder into the air.

So what to do? What is the problem. If the problem is my being disgusted at people having to do this to earn or supplement an income, then perhaps I should be banned from going there. If it is because this work is hazardous – god knows what awful stuff finds itself among this waste – then perhaps these people should be banned from approaching the site.

Longer term, it makes sense to separate waste. Actually no, in the short term it makes sense, now. Here are the reasons:

  • Of the 65% organic fraction of the 350 tonnes per day, if it could be used in biogas digesters, then ____ Rp of gas could be produced. (figure to come)
  • If all of that could be sold as compost (unlikely), then its sales value could be up to 3,60,000 Rp (3,600 Eur)
  • Reducing the truck journeys from 50 to 18 would save around 1,50,000 per day (1,500 Eur).
  • Removing the organic fraction from the waste makes obtaining the recyclable elements much easier and slightly less unpleasant (if no less dangerous).
  • Once some separation is started, it makes it easier to begin to separate the non-organic fraction into useful and non-useful elements.

I returned home from Sisdole to a cup of coffee and organic breakfast. I stank. Even my camera when I held it to my face to take a picture stank of the waste. Later in the afternoon I became ill. Either from the breakfast from the cafe I have visited numerous times, or something else. I retired to bed. Later, the familiar bloated feeling that lasts several hours before eventually vomiting came. I lay in bed reading and then decided to look at the days photos. Just seeing a picture of the steaming waste was enough of a psychological catalyst to make me reach for the bucket.