Ditching plastic for a Clean KathmanduNepal should put its country’s health and dignity over the value of the rupee
Walking down Kathmandu’s streets at night, scenes of garbage fires are a common sight. The ever-familiar sweet smell of burning plastic wafts through the air, and during the winter, people can be seen huddling close to these small fires for warmth. Burning plastic, however, is a grave mistake that is not only damaging the beauty of the city, but also the health of its denizens.
Gaseous emissions released when plastics are burned contain highly toxic chemical compound called dioxin, which scientific studies have shown to be linked to the development of cancer, impotence, hormonal imbalances in unborn children, asthma, and a variety of other health conditions harmful to human health.
One form of plastic often found in these fires, and whose ubiquity has been little-questioned, are the small cups that tea vendors sell tea in. The younger generation in Kathmandu might not remember these days, but years ago, it was not in plastic cups that tea was served, but terracotta cups known as kulhars that are made from organic clay.
Kulhars are a specialty of Bhaktapur, and every day thousands of these miniature terracotta pots are fired from local clay. Where some plastics have been shown to leech harmful chemicals into beverages (especially so in hot beverages) that can damage health, kulhars are organic and hygienically sterile due to the high temperatures at which they are fired. An increase in production of these kulhars would help promote local economies and in a small way reduce dependence on foreign imports.
Another plastic just as common in Kathmandu are plastic bags. In addition to releasing harmful chemicals into the air if burned, the presence of these garbage-filled bags make the city look like a waste dump, they can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, they constrict waterways, and they contribute to the premature deaths of cows rummaging through the city garbage.
On April 14 this year, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoSTE) released a bill to end their usage, but with little alternatives offered to store owners to use instead, their use has continued.
2015 has been a difficult year to focus on addressing environmental concerns due to the more pressing issues of helping earthquake affected areas and addressing Madhesi concerns in the new constitution.
“Many of these bags come from neighbouring countries like China and India,” says Rabin Man Shrestha, Chief Divisional Engineer at the Environment Management Division of Kathmandu Metropolitan City. “We are planning to be more strict on plastic bag usage, and to implement a government programme to distribute locally-made reusable cloth bags to residents of the Kathmandu Valley to address this issue.” Shrestha stated that the reusable bags would be free-of-charge to residents; it is unclear when, however, Kathmandu will see this policy in action. The solutions to Nepal’s environmental issues are not outside its grasp, but lie simply in making efforts to preserve the beauty that Nepal already has. One of the biggest challenges in reducing plastics are the fact that eco-friendly alternatives are sometimes costlier than cheap plastics. In the case of returning to clay cups, similar programmes were attempted in India, but with little response. In 2004, under the leadership of minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, Indian Railways attempted to make a full switch to the cups, however it was found that the clay cups would cost 40 paisas (less than one cent), as opposed to the seven to 10 paisas that the disposable cups in, so the policy never had a chance to fully take off. But is the cost of human health really only worth a fraction of a rupee? Assume that one drinks a cup of tea out of one of these plastic cups used in Nepal every day for an entire year. The difference in cost between using clay pots compared to plastic cups would amount to little more than Rs 110, or about how much one would pay for a plate of fried momos. Are the risks of health concerns really worth this little?
Some may say that Nepal is a poor country that doesn’t have the money to provide a good life for itself. This feeds into a developmental fatalism that many are simply refusing to accept anymore.
Redistributing tax funds to allow for alternatives to harmful materials in society and providing a task force that could clean up the city daily could lead to the development of Kathmandu into a spotless city with clean streets that would make people proud to live and work in the country. Expanding the production facilities of organic materials such as kulhars, for instance, and hiring large teams of individuals to clean the city streets would create jobs and stimulate the economy. As you read this article, there are hundreds of beggars on the streets literally sleeping their lives away because they are out of work and don’t know what better ways to spend their time. Imagine if they were all employed to clean the city streets and help in sustainable material production instead. Envision the psychological transformations that would take place in these newly-e powered individuals and the psychological effects that a clean city would have on the people of the Kathmandu Valley, not to mention the faith international investors could put in a country that has become so determined to lift itself up by the bootstraps and reach towards development.
Human minds are the greatest wealth of a nation, not its bank accounts. For any growth to occur in either individuals or nations, people need to be willing to take a risk to stretch outside their means to reach to new heights of possibilities. Rather than choosing whatever route is cheapest because this is all that is available within the country’s means, Nepal should use the 21st century to distinguish itself as a nation that puts its country’s health and dignity over the value of the rupee.
The author tweets @Caprarad