Rapid urbanization and changing consumption patterns have recently led to a steady increase of waste volumes in Lahore . According to official numbers, the capital of Punjab generates now about 6,000 tons of waste per day , although new figures even estimate the amount to about 8,500 tons . As it seems, the political responses to resulting waste overflows and environmental degradation have so far been driven by supposed technological fixes and private-sector solutions rather than taken into consideration the valuable contributions of the large informal recycling sector.
In 2010, the City District Government of Lahore created the Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC), a public enterprise to modernize and improve the city’s waste management and cleanliness. In 2012, LWMC privatized waste collection services in large parts of the city, subcontracting the Turkish companies Albayrak and OzPak. It has since then faced criticism for insufficient services, as waste bins regularly overflow and residents are forced to pile up garbage in the streets . According to media reports, LWMC in recent years was also involved in a number of financial scams and irregular practices, which were also associated with the Punjab government .
For about two decades, much of Lahore’s waste was discarded without any control at the Mehmood Booti dumpsite. It caused severe environmental pollution and health hazards, for example through leachate contaminating the Ravi river, so that environmentalists demanded its closure. The situation was even worse at the nearby Saggian dumpsite, located in the flood plain of the river and next to a slum of Afghan refugee waste pickers. Despite the official closure in 2010, its hazardous impacts were felt long after while dumping and waste picking also continued informally. As the city lacked alternative dumping grounds, illegal dumping also gradually increased in other locations and an estimated half a million people faced serious health risks from resulting pollution. In 2015, eleven illegal dumpsites were closed and the Environmental Protection Agency announced the opening of three dumpsites in the south of the city. In 2016, the Mehmood Booti was eventually shut down and converted into a park. It became replaced with a new sanitary landfill in Lakhodair, which from then on received about 5,000 tons of waste per day . Illegal dumping was however also reported to continue in 2017, with an estimated 1,500 tons of waste ending up in drains or open plots across the city. This has been blamed on LWMC and private housing and commercial societies, which would try to save on fuel and disposal costs .
Located in the northeast of the city, the Lakhodair landfill was initially praised as a “state of the art” project that could receive waste without causing any environmental impact until at least 2026. However, in 2018 media reports revealed that LWMC was dumping waste in unsealed parts of the landfill, releasing a large quantity of toxic leachate to the groundwater. Waste was also burnt, leading to toxic smoke, and was spread to other areas near the site. In 2020, the landfill was reported to have already reached its capacities and accumulated waste was found to have contaminated underground water, supposedly due to mismanagement of LWMC . The operator was accused to have dumped waste without previous segregation – violating the waste management rules – and to not have opened new cells once the initial two cells became saturated. A company spokesperson then explained that the opening of new cells was barred by the provincial government, which had decided to instead spend money on waste-to-energy projects . Also a recycling recovery center should have become opened in the town of Sundar, near Lahore, to recycle about 1,000 tons of waste per day, but the project has never become a reality as LWMC again claimed to not have received sufficient funds from the government .
Another ongoing problem is the illegal recycling of hospital waste. As media reported in 2018, there were about 40 plastic recycling units just in Lahore that would receive hazardous medical waste such as syringes, glucose bottles, and blood and urine bags, collected from across the province and used to illegally manufacture plastic furniture, bottles, toys, and even plastic straws - despite laws that prohibit these businesses. It is stated that hospitals face too high costs to deposit their waste and therefore 85 to 90 percent of all hospital waste was handed over to illegal recycling units .
Informal recycling in Lahore takes place in various ways, as outlined by Asim et al. (2012), Karim et al. (2015), and Ashraf et al. (2016). For instance, itinerant buyers purchase recyclable materials from households (so-called pheriwalas), or sometimes also barter these for other goods (e.g. fruits, sweets, ..), while door-to-door collectors (so-called korreywalas) work for a fee. They usually do not recycle themselves but dispose of waste at containers, transfer points or other vacant places, and typically work under the auspices of local LWMC officials. They mostly work in areas that are not covered by the private contractors, but that means that households often pay twice: to the municipality (through the water bills) and to the informal collectors. Furthermore, there are waste pickers working at dumpsites, transfer points and in streets and markets. Waste pickers in the streets recycle all kinds of waste of some value, usually carrying it in big sacks on their shoulders. Waste pickers at transfer points help to unload waste from arriving donkey-drawn carts from collectors and pick out leftover recyclables. Waste pickers at dumpsites work in a similar way when garbage trucks arrive, but they recycle under the worst conditions and receive material of the lowest quality. Recyclables are brought to junkyards of intermediary traders (so-called kabarias), who can be found in all neighborhoods. They usually employ about ten people, including children, and also provide collectors with equipment, but often lack funds and official support to handle waste in a proper manner. Recyclables are then further sold on to scrap dealers, who in Lahore can be found along Bund Road, near the Ravi river .
Child waste pickers are common across Pakistan, as from an estimated 25,000 waste pickers in total, about 70 percent are under 18. They also work in small junkyards. A workday for waste pickers in Lahore can last for up to 12 hours and generates an average earning of US$ 1.20; that is similar to that of domestic servants or low-level laborers and basically just enough to survive. A large part of them, especially at transfer points, dumpsites, and junkyards, are migrants from rural areas or Afghan refugees, who face social exclusion, discrimination, and disadvantages on the labor market, so that waste picking is often even the most independent choice . At dumpsites such as the Saggian area, waste picking is mostly done by Afghan women and their children, who are often not accepted by schools. Waste pickers are exposed to health hazards from toxic substances and medical waste and often lack access to basic education, health services, clean water and sanitation. They are regularly confronted with harassment, abuses, and insults and often also face social issues like drug addiction and forms of exploitation, i. e. by junkyard owners, intermediaries, or waste management officials who demand bribes for the access to transfer stations .
In the absence of a formal recycling system, this informal recycling sector recovers an estimated 21 percent of all recyclable waste in Lahore . As in all large cities of Pakistan, the groundwork for recycling is done by waste picking, which is thus an important environmental contribution and also helps to reduce waste management costs for the municipality. Moreover, as it mostly involves urban poor and marginalized social groups, it also helps to secure the livelihoods of thousands of people . Despite that, as Karim et al. (2015) note, there is no formal integration of these practices nor support from the government and the private sector for these . As it seems, initiatives to encourage recycling and support waste picker communities are rather implemented at a small scale, often by grassroots organizations. For example, the NGO Faces Pakistan has supported the Afghan waste picker community in the Saggian area and opened a school . The Aabroo Educational Welfare Organisation, a nonprofit initiative in Eastern Lahore founded by Robina Shakeel in 2003, has set-up a waste collection system for 8,000 households, and with the earnings from recycling has managed to cover educational expenses for about 8,000 underprivileged children .
On the political level, however, a shift towards incineration technologies was initiated. In 2018, the government of Punjab signed an agreement with the Lahore Xingzhong Renewable Energy Company Limited to develop an incinerator in Lakhodair, announced as another “state of the art” project. With a capacity of 40 MW, it is Pakistan’s first waste-to-energy plant and should convert an estimated 2,000 tons of waste per day into electricity . The company is a joint venture between the three Chinese companies China ENFI Engineering Corporation, MCC Tongsin Resources and Chengdu Xingrong Environment. The plant is expected to start operations by 2022 . The National Electric Power Regulatory Authority already approved the electricity tariff and declared: “A successful implementation of the project will pave the way for other such initiatives to solve pressing waste disposal problems and address challenges of limited space for landfills and gas emissions, resulting in cleaner cities and a healthy life” .
At the beginning of 2019, the government of Punjab announced the building of five more waste-to-energy projects in the province, in the cities of Rawalpindi, Multan, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, and Sialkot, in addition to the one in Lahore. The planned projects come as part of the “Clean and Green Punjab Campaign”; they should be launched in cooperation with Chinese and other foreign companies in order to replace dumpsites and generate electricity .
This arguably poses a new threat for people living from informal recycling, as recyclable waste is usually of high-calorific value and thus more suitable for burning than organic and non-recyclable waste. Without any further waste segregation, large amounts of waste might be burnt before waste pickers can sort them, while better recycling will only leave waste of low-calorific value that makes incineration less profitable and risks generating more toxic emissions. Although there is so far not much mobilization against the new waste-to-energy projects, environmentalists have raised objections about the lax treatment of environmental regulations in the environmental licensing process and the recent cases of mismanagement in municipal waste projects. It altogether seems that these projects promise the mass reduction in waste, but come with severe social and environmental risks and without any measures to improve recycling, the livelihoods of waste pickers, and the treatment of organic and non-recyclable waste .