From the air, Kathmandu seems to have a thousand winking eyes as the sun hits the solar panels installed on many homes across the city.
But on the ground, the sun illuminates something very different: piles of plastic and household rubbish, strewn amongst the pagodas and along the labyrinthine streets.
Kathmandu is at war with waste. After a devastating earthquake three years ago, it is producing around 800 – 1000 tonnes of waste daily – from plastic and paper to scrap metal and glass. At points the city has become so overwhelmed that the rubbish ends up on its outskirts: in the scenic Kathmandu valley.
To prevent the gateway to Everest becoming a trail of litter, the city has undertaken a variety of projects. There is a dedicated municipal department tasked with reducing the volume of waste going to landfill plus a host of NGOs, and small entrepreneurial enterprises and businesses are all trying to limit the volume of refuse ending up in landfills and to normalise recycling.
But one of the more remarkable efforts is taking place in the valley itself.
At the Shree Bhawani Secondary School in Kagati Gaon, volunteers are cutting, shaping and polishing scrap metal, rubber tyres and other bits of discarded material – all with an eye to making swings, see-saws and, eventually, an entire children’s playground.
“Kagati Gaon happens to be the receptacle for much of Kathmandu’s waste, so there is a poetic satisfaction to creating educational infrastructure out of the same waste,” says Canadian-Scot Ben Reid-Howells. Along with Prashant Kumar, from the east Indian state of Bihar, Reid-Howells has been making an effort to introduce the concept of “upcycling” here.
The plan was initially met with bemusement, says Kumar. “When we said we are building a playground and the materials come or we find them, everyone began laughing – they ask what the the hell we are going to do with these things?
“The idea that waste can be used is not that common in this part of the world.”
The school had no playground to speak of before, and now has several swings, climb throughs and see-saws, all hewn from waste materials including rubber, plastic and metal. The pair – who met in Pune, India and formed the Vasudhaiva Ride project to motorbike from India to Scotland helping communities along the way – source the materials themselves. “First you have to identify usable waste, then you can think about practical ways to use it,” Kumar says. “Upcycling comes out of creation – it’s a skill but also an art.”
The area has issues with domestic violence and alcoholism, so it has been as significant for children to interact with outsiders as it has been to have a safe play area built. “They had nowhere to go before,” says Kumar. “This place has become the focal point for every kid for miles around now.”
Some of the older children and teenagers have been watching and learning upcycling techniques themselves. Kumar says he hopes one day to run a college teaching upcycling.
In the meantime, representatives from Kathmandu’s various city departments have embraced the idea of upcycling, with plans afoot to promote it in municipal schools and public spaces. “On the bigger scale this kind of work connects to climate justice, the social side of climate change,” Reid-Howells says. “We as the human race have hit the wall to some extent, and places like Kathmandu are the front bumper against that wall.”
Several private companies are looking at ways to deal with waste in a similarly new way, though on a more commercial level. Doko Recyclers – named for the Nepali wicker baskets used to transport everything from fruit to construction materials – has calculated that Kathmandu’s waste will double by 2025, and that 40% is recyclable.
“We estimate there are around 13,000 entities dealing with waste on a micro scale – small scrap dealers, cycle-wallahs who pick up scrap in rickshaws from houses,” says Doko co-founder Runit Saria. “None of us belong to this market, being from other parts of Nepal. Most thought we were getting into a sector unsuited for people like us – business people. But we have made major inroads and signed big commercial clients.”
Doko’s services include specialised bins for recycling, a “green audit” for companies, and an online dashboard allowing clients to see – and show off – how much plastic, water and glass they have saved through their actions. “This whole subject of plastic waste is a global subject now”, says fellow co-founder Raghavendra Mahto. “So there is an ecosystem being developed, which we are very much encouraging.”
Mahto and Saria say that for the younger generation, what’s good for the environment goes hand in hand with what’s beneficial for the economy.
“Generationally there is a huge difference,” agrees Shilshila Acharya, head of the Himalayan Climate Initiative (HCI), a non-profit organisation founded by businesses and philanthropists in Nepal to deal with development and climate issues. “My generation studied environmental effects and studies, so if we speak to someone of that age group they instantly get why we need to stop use of plastic – there is awareness and sometimes guilt.”
Acharya and her colleagues have overseen several recycling projects, including getting plastic bags banned in Kathmandu, and says the city’s young people are firmly on side.
“But the older generation need a bit more convincing. The generation before that – grandparents – they understand it, as they grew up with cloth bags and so on. So it’s the middle generation that saw the jump to plastic, essentially – that takes a little push. But so many youngsters are involved that often the mindset gets changed at home: kids tell their parents to use less plastic.”