Big Hurdles Ahead in Rangoon Trash Cleanup

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 18 November 2015

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — With the UN Climate Change Conference due to sit in Paris at the end of November, ecological issues are once again creeping back into the global agenda.

With the climate talks on the horizon, last month The Irrawaddy was invited along with seven other regional journalists to examine some of the innovative recycling projects underway in the Netherlands.

The tour, organized by the Holland Branding agency and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, aimed to showcase the work of factories, banks, film projects and local governments involved in either bankrolling, promoting or manufacturing recycled goods.

On our visit to Amsterdam, we met Peter Smith, an artist and photographer who started the Klean Foundation to raise awareness of the environmental impact of garbage on the city’s waterways. For the last two years, he has been wandering the canals that ring the capital, collecting litter to fashion into a 12-meter tall statue of the Virgin Mary, which he has dubbed the ‘Plastic Madonna’.

“At least 8 million tons of trash are going from the canals to the ocean every year,” Smith told journalists, adding that if the trend continued, “our children will have to eat plastic soup in the future.”

Elsewhere, we saw municipalities sending refuse to be refashioned into shopping bags and toilet paper, while factories salvaged parts from some of the 400,000 tons of electric appliances discarded annually in the Netherlands.

The scene was a far cry from Rangoon, where gutters and drains are perennially clogged with debris, and the grounds of the alleys behind apartment blocks are impossible to discern through piles of rotting food waste and plastic litter.

Waste collection in the commercial capital of Burma is rudimentary and suffers from a lack of municipal funding. Lowly paid teams of collection workers from the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), often starting in the evening and working into the late hours, roam the streets and collect garbage bags into pushcarts.

Fighting off the occasional stray dog, and mindful of the occasional speeding car racing down otherwise deserted streets, workers push their carts back to waiting garbage trucks, which usually take their cargo to be dumped at one of two landfills on the city’s outskirts—either Dawei Chaung in North Dagon or Htein Bin in Hlaing Tharyar.

At present, none of the 1,500 tons of garbage collected by the YCDC is recycled. With the assistance of $8.2 million in Japanese economic aid, the municipal government plans to open a $16 million recycling plant in Mingaladon in 2017.

Even once it is fully operational, it will only be able to recycle 60 tons of rubbish per day, less than 5 percent of the city’s total waste production.

Win Myo Thu, cofounder of the environmental NGO Eco-Dev, said that there was little local understanding of the environmental impact of household garbage, and all levels of government into Burma needed to lead a cultural change.

He pointed to the recent development of waste-to-energy plants at Dawei Chaung and Htein Bin as a positive interim step before more sophisticated recycling projects were introduced, such as the separation of recyclable materials from other household waste.

“Most people don’t know how to use waste materials effectively, that’s why we’re now encouraging waste-to-energy projects by the government,” he said. “[But] the government has to give people the incentive for recycling projects.”

Both power plants now have a combined operational capacity of 37.4 megawatts after a staged construction in the last two years. Khin Hlaing, a member of the YCDC’s central committee, stressed that better education was needed to reduce pollution around Rangoon and make recycling projects more attractive to investors.

“People awareness is still weak, they need to know the right way to discard their rubbish,” he said.