Harnessing Pakistan’s waste


The country’s solid waste has potential to produce power and organic manure, mitigating impacts of climate change in the process.

Waste Dumping Ground

In our material life so many things appear to be insignificant. Take, for instance, solid and liquid waste. It is true that in the past such materials could not be effectively harnessed but in modern times such items seem to have some value or importance. Many countries are coming up with mechanisms to renew these worn-out materials in a way that could benefit them without damaging the environment.

The example of Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan with a population of more than 16 million (according to the last census of 2017) can be taken. The city produced over 16,000 tonnes of solid waste daily in 2022, which could be put to good use if efficient ways of harnessing them were employed. Lack of an effective policy over this has led to the rise of garbage or waste mafia in the metropolis. However, there is good news as well, like the generating of gas from cow dung in mini Pakistan[i].

Three foreign companies have expressed an interest in generating power from waste in Lahore. According to Karachi based daily Business Recorder, German company Innovative Techno Plus signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC) in October last year. Besides, ENATE, a Norwegian company, had signed a MoU last year for generating 55 megawatts (MW) of power from 1,200 tonnes of solid waste in the provincial capital. Chief executive officer of LWMC Ali Anan Qamar confirms both the news.

Muhammad Kamran Nasir, LWMC’s general manager for planning and projects, said: “In addition to this, a Thai company has also expressed interest in a waste to power generation project. We will provide waste for the project, which is on a first come and first serve basis. The company would use 24 million tonnes of legacy waste, which comparatively has less calorific value but can be harnessed with the help of modern technology that some companies are promising to bring. Around 14 million tonnes of legacy waste have been lying at Mehmood Booti dump site of Lahore since 2016 and another 10 million tonnes of such waste has been there at Lakhodair dump site of the city since 2012 or 2013.”

LWMC will also provide 5,000 to 7,000 tonnes of fresh waste to these companies or any company that qualifies for the project, Nasir said, adding that tenders, procurement and other issues were being discussed. If everything goes well, he said, the project could start in six months.

Wasted waste

Dump site

Pakistan’s capital Islamabad too needs such harnessing of the waste but before its effective utilisation, it is necessary to put relevant facts and figures in place. However, before turning the focus to the capital, it is imperative to assess the national scenario of solid waste management. According to the International Trade Administration of the US, “Pakistan generates approximately 49.6 million tonnes of solid waste a year, increasing more than 2.4 percent annually. Pakistan lacks waste management infrastructure like other developing countries. Most of the municipal waste is either burned, dumped or buried on vacant plots, which creates serious environmental problems threatening the health and welfare of the general people. The Government of Pakistan (GOP) estimates that 87,000 tonnes of solid waste is generated per week, mostly from the major metropolitan areas. Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city with a population of over 16, 051,521, generated more than 16,500 tonnes of municipal waste daily in 2022. About 60-70 per cent of the solid waste in the cities is collected.”

The national breakup of the solid waste in 2022 was as follows:

Ash, bricks, and dirt – 18 per cent, glass – 6 per cent, textile – 2 per cent, cardboard – 7 per cent, food wastes – 30 per cent, leather – 1 per cent, paper – 6 per cent, plastic – 9 per cent, rubber – 1 per cent, metal – 4 per cent, wood – 2 per cent and yard wastes – 14 per cent[ii].

Solid waste in Islamabad

It is fair to say that there are conflicting statistics regarding the population of Islamabad and the exact amount of solid waste that it generates. According to the Capital Development Authority (CDA) website, the area of Islamabad is 906.50 square kilometers (sq km). A further 3,626 sq km area is known as the Specified Area, with the Margala Hills in the north and northeast. Islamabad city is divided into five major zones: Zone I, Zone II, Zone III, Zone IV and Zone V. Zone IV is the largest in area while Zone I is the largest developed residential area. Zone I is divided into sectors. Each residential sector is identified by a letter of the alphabet and a number, and covers an area of approximately 4 sq km.

According to World Population Review, the population of the federal capital is 1,198,035. Some other estimates suggest it is more than 1.2 million while there are still those who believe that it is more than 2.2 million. The finance ministry quoting the last official census conducted in 2017 claims its population to be 2.0 million while the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics estimates a higher population at 2,003,367.

The question regarding the population of the federal capital is important because unless we know the exact number, we cannot calculate the amount of solid waste generated by the city. Tens of thousands of people migrated to Islamabad from former tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in the aftermath of the Taliban insurgency. The official census does not reflect their presence although they have been using all civic amenities and must be generating waste as well. The same could be said about tens of thousands of workers from Punjab, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and other parts of the country living in the capital for years now.

So, unavailability of the exact headcount also leads to confusion about the amount of solid waste generated by the city with the CDA claiming it is somewhere between 600 tonnes and 800 tonnes daily. According to a report published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, “An increasing amount of solid waste is generated in the city, rising from around 500-600 tonnes per day in 2004 to around 800-1,000 tonnes per day in 2011.”

If this report is anything to go by, then the city must be generating much more waste than what officials claim. Another problem in data collection is the area where a garbage collection facility is available. According to CDA officials, this 600 tonnes to 800 tonnes daily is only from most of the sectors of Islamabad and a few other areas like Bahara Kahu and Khanna. Almost the entire Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) or the rural areas of the federal capital are bereft of this garbage lifting facility. In addition to that, a number of slums, shanty towns and unregulated settlements also have no access to garbage houses. Most of them dump the waste in open nallahs (sewers) or empty plots. It may be mentioned that these unregulated settlements are densely populated and must be generating a large amount of waste.

Rafia Haider, a CDA official with deep interest in environmental affairs, admitted that no city had the exact numbers or figures about the waste generated in various cities. She added that the World Bank might have such figures. Could it be because no concrete study calculating the amount was carried out for years? The last study aimed at calculating the exact amount of waste and exploring the potential of generating power from it was conducted 18 years back in 2004. So, one cannot be sure about the authenticity of various figures thrown at researchers or media persons by CDA or other government authorities. According to her, CDA is responsible for collecting 600 tonnes of waste while the council secretaries are responsible for the remaining portion. It is estimated that the per capita daily waste generation in Islamabad is 0.2 kg, so it could be around 1,200 tonnes per day, she added.

It is also difficult to get the exact break up for solid waste because statistics about industrial waste do not lie with the CDA. According to Haider, 64 per cent of the waste is municipal, 23 per cent green waste, 3 per cent plastics and the rest mixed. She claimed that this was the breakup of waste collected by the Sanitation Directorate.

In modern times no investor would want to pump money into an area about which exact statistics are not available. So, there is a need to carry out headcounts on scientific basis and a survey to assess the population growth and increase in solid waste. Exact figures about population and solid waste could be one of the factors that might attract investors.

Despite being a planned city, the federal capital does not have any landfill site. This is the blunder that the planner committed, said a senior CDA official who wished to be anonymous. Haider, however, said: “Currently ICT has a working arrangement with Rawalpindi Waste Management Company for utilisation of waste dumping site at Losar. Only transfer stations are present in ICT area from which waste is shifted to the dumping site daily.”

Waste to power: Commercial viability

Waste to Resource

A lot of debate, meanwhile, goes on if power generated through waste is commercially viable. Ali Ijaz, deputy director of Environmental Protection Agency, Punjab, believed that methane gas could be harnessed if a proper landfill site was set up and run on scientific ground. But Vaqar Zakaria, an energy expert, is sceptical about such claims. Zakaria said: “A substantial amount of the waste can be recycled, which has a large market in Pakistan providing employment to tens of thousands of people, while another big junk is green waste that could be used for composting. Then why use it for power generation?” He argues that green waste is wet, which is difficult to heat up and burning it at a high temperature would itself create an environmental problem.

Sardar Khan Zimri, a senior CDA official, pointed out that it was extremely expensive to generate power from waste. “A Chinese company in the past carried out a study on it. The government also spent around Rs.100 million to explore the possibility of generating this by carrying out feasibility and meeting other requirements. Some officials were sent to Japan for training but at the end of the day it did not work,” he said.

Zimri said that companies showed an interest in generating power from waste but demanded a very high tariff, which the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA) would never approve as it could cost more than Rs.100 per unit to generate power through waste while the current tariff is a bit over Rs.20 per unit. Besides, Zimri said, the volume of power produced would also be very low.

Rafia Haider asserted unless adequate measures for at source segregation are taken, the cost of power generation would be very high. A Chinese company had to abandon its plan to generate power from waste in Lahore because it could not get the tariff that it wanted, she explained.

But Zakaria believed that after segregating recyclable items and green waste, very little would be left which was combustible and useful for power generation. Haider too admitted that the 2004 study showed low calorific was necessary for power generation. “As compared to western countries, Pakistan does not generate much waste. Seattle with much a smaller population than Karachi has 19 McDonald’s outlets while Karachi has just 16 such outlets. So, here waste generation per capita is much lower. Power generation would be possible in countries where this waste generation is higher,” Haider said.

It is logical that the more branches of fast food a city has, the more solid waste it would generate because they would need more tissue papers, hard papers, paper boxes, plastic bags, more vegetables and fruits. According to the last official US Census conducted in 2020, the population of Seattle was 741,251 and it generated 711,619 tonnes of municipal solid waste in 2020. On the other hand, Karachi generates 14,000 to 16,000 tonnes per day or 5,110,000 tonnes to 5,840,000 tonnes annually.  Compared to Karachi’s per capita waste generation of  0.44 kg per day, Seattle generates wastes amounting to 2.27 pound (1.029 kg) per person per day. That means if Seattle’s population increases to 6 million, it would produce more waste than Karachi is doing with its over 17 million population.

Some experts suggest that if the waste of Islamabad, Rawalpindi and some other areas is dumped at one landfill site, then perhaps the prospect of generating power could be higher. For instance, Rawalpindi with its 5.9 million population generates 4,500 tonnes of solid waste per day. Add the waste of Islamabad, Murree, Kahuta and other areas to it, then it could become a substantial amount. LWMC officials reportedly said the Innovative Techno Plus would generate 100 MW from 2000 tonnes of solid waste supplied by LWMC. So, if this company can generate 100 MW from 2,000 tonnes of waste, then there could definitely be a way to generate power from the waste of Islamabad and other adjoining areas, which could be in large quantities.

Composting: A viable option


Though the chances of power generation are not bright, composting green waste is a viable option. The Integrated Resource Recovery Center (IRRC), a private initiative by Rawalpindi-based non-governmental organisation Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan Memorial Trust, is already carrying it out. A visit to IRRC’s centre in B17 sector of Islamabad reveals that composting might go some way in mitigating the hardships of farmers. According to Zulfiqar Ali of IRRC, the facility produces 20 sacks of composting each weighing 25 kg every week – around 2,000kg monthly. He said that 20 sacks were enough for use in an acre of land. A 25 kg sack of compost is being sold by IRRC for Rs.600 while urea is expensive at Rs.5,000 to Rs.6,000 per 25kg sack. Around 1,000 kg green waste can produce 100 kg composting.

The centre is collecting waste from 3,500 housing units and segregating it,” said Bilawal Khan of IRRC. “In addition, we also collect green waste from parks. We extract 60 per cent organic, which is thrown into a compost box for 60 days, 25 per cent is recyclables that we sell and the rest 15 per cent is taken to a dumping site. Only Rs.15 million is spent on it. We receive 3.5 kg waste per house daily. The center, which has 12 compost boxes, is also using composting to grow plants on the premises besides supplying it to the housing society where it is located. The center is also carrying out warm composting.”

Abid Hussain, another IRRC official, said that in 2009 they started working on solid waste, establishing first its centre in the G15 sector. “The second one is in B17 and the third in Jinnah Garden. We are going to work on plastic and composting in Bahara Kahu area.”

Hussain explained that such plants could be set up in small housing colonies, consisting of 3,000 housing units. “We are also training people how to carry out composting at home using kitchen waste,” he said.

Liquid waste: A mitigating tool

Pakistan is one of the most water scarce countries in the world. It ranks 14 among the 17 ‘extremely high-water risk’ countries of the world, a list that includes hot and dry countries like Saudi Arabia. According to the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics over 80 per cent of the total population in the country faces “severe water scarcity” for at least one month of the year. It is feared that if the situation remains unchanged, the whole country may face ‘water scarcity’ by 2025.

A research paper of the institute says over 63 per cent of the globally produced wastewater is collected, 52 per cent is treated (48 per cent is released untreated) while 11 per cent is reused. “With a mere 1 per cent treatment of collected wastewater, Pakistan ranks among the countries with the lowest water treatment rate. Between 1972 and 2020, Pakistan’s population increased by 2.6 times, moving it in rank from 9th to 5th. Total water use in Pakistan increased by about 0.7 per cent per year between 1977 and 2017 while total water resources remained static at 246.8 billion cubic meters (BCM), resulting in a decrease in per capita water resources from 3,478 cubic meter to 1,117 cubic meters per year.”

Given this situation, many experts believe that Pakistan must treat sewage water to mitigate hardships that millions across the country are facing. According to Zimri, Islamabad generates 22 million gallon to 23 million gallon sewage water per day, mostly from urban areas of the federal capital. The city has a capacity to treat only 17 million gallon water but because of some technical issues at treatment plants, only 5 million gallon to 6 million gallon is being treated daily. The rest is being released untreated. Zakaria believed that if sewage water was treated properly, it could be supplied to farmers living in the outskirts of the capital. In addition to that it could be used for washing and other purposes, he added. “Depending upon the level of treatment, the water could be turned into drinkable water. China is doing so but it depends on the level of sophistication and technology,” he said.

CDA plans

According to Rafia Haider, a fresh study is being conducted for potential utilisation of various waste types and allied facilities to be developed for the same. “The waste characterisation study will be instrumental in guiding the said planning decisions for establishment of composting facilities, material recovery plants, recycling units, etc. The private sector can play its role in development of such facilities and utilising the waste portions. This will help to reduce overall waste in the city and require smaller amounts to be sent to the dumping site for final disposal.”

Haider believes that for this all licensing and specific laws regulating them have to be kept in view, and each case will have to be assessed separately. She said: “Waste to energy plants are governed under the alternate energy policy and require tariff setting and access to main transmission lines, which require NOC (no objection certificate) from the concerned ministry.”



[i] Karachi is referred to as mini Pakistan since almost all ethnic groups of Pakistan live in the city.

[ii] The above facts are from the International Trade Administration of the US website:https://www.trade.gov/country-commercial-guides/pakistan-waste-management