Photo Essay

No time to waste: Dealing with Yangon's trash problem

The lack of proper practice of rubbish categorisation among Yangon's population has created jobs for some that come from the rural villages.
The lack of proper practice of rubbish categorisation among Yangon's population has created jobs for some that come from the rural villages. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Mr U Tin Win, 50, is a night shift worker who collects trash in Kyauk Tadar township which one of the main areas of downtown Yangon.
Mr U Tin Win, 50, is a night shift worker who collects trash in Kyauk Tadar township which one of the main areas of downtown Yangon. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
The landfills in Yangon city also provide a living for some ordinary citizens.
The landfills in Yangon city also provide a living for some ordinary citizens. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
There are many back alleys Yangon that have become convenient dumping grounds for the residents.
There are many back alleys Yangon that have become convenient dumping grounds for the residents. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
 Mr Aung Moe, 24, works the night shift in Kyauk Tadar township in Yangon city.
Mr Aung Moe, 24, works the night shift in Kyauk Tadar township in Yangon city. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
 In early 2015, solid waste collection and transportation were put up for privatisation and eventually two private companies won the tender.
In early 2015, solid waste collection and transportation were put up for privatisation and eventually two private companies won the tender. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
The lack of proper practice of rubbish categorisation among Yangon's population has created jobs for some that come from the rural villages.
The lack of proper practice of rubbish categorisation among Yangon's population has created jobs for some that come from the rural villages. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
 The main landfill, Htein Bin, for Yangon city is located at Hlaingthaya township in the western part of the city.
The main landfill, Htein Bin, for Yangon city is located at Hlaingthaya township in the western part of the city. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Just 4 years ago, more than 70% of Yangon's solid waste was organic waste but this number has dropped rapidly to now less than 50%.
Just 4 years ago, more than 70% of Yangon's solid waste was organic waste but this number has dropped rapidly to now less than 50%. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Just 4 years ago, more than 70% of Yangon's solid waste was organic waste but this number has dropped rapidly to now less than 50%.
Just 4 years ago, more than 70% of Yangon's solid waste was organic waste but this number has dropped rapidly to now less than 50%. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Mr Paing Iwin Oo, 18, has to clean up the waste collected by the other workers.
Mr Paing Iwin Oo, 18, has to clean up the waste collected by the other workers. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Mr Win Htwe, 19, has been working in Htein Bin for a year and he said that the likelihood of getting cuts and injuries are increasing.
Mr Win Htwe, 19, has been working in Htein Bin for a year and he said that the likelihood of getting cuts and injuries are increasing. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Solid waste management has become more difficult as the increasing volume of rubbish is exceeding the resources put to tackle it.
Solid waste management has become more difficult as the increasing volume of rubbish is exceeding the resources put to tackle it. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Even though the YCDC has a system of waste collection and transportation in place, it is often insufficient to manage the increasing amount of trash produced.
Even though the YCDC has a system of waste collection and transportation in place, it is often insufficient to manage the increasing amount of trash produced. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
In the No. 6 Ward of Kamayut township, many back alleys between residential flats are still being used as convenient littering and dumping grounds.
In the No. 6 Ward of Kamayut township, many back alleys between residential flats are still being used as convenient littering and dumping grounds. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
The Yangon City Development Council (YCDC) is only in-charge of collection and transportation of solid waste to the final disposal site.
The Yangon City Development Council (YCDC) is only in-charge of collection and transportation of solid waste to the final disposal site. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
A total of 3,800 waste workers take care of Yangon city currently, but there is still a shortage of manpower in some townships.
A total of 3,800 waste workers take care of Yangon city currently, but there is still a shortage of manpower in some townships. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

As Yangon in Myanmar attracts more investors and locals, it is producing more and more waste. Residents have said 'no' to the privatisation of trash collection, but this means they have to live with a growing problem.

The sour stench of rotting rubbish attacks the nostrils even from a distance of more than five metres. It is coming from the entrance of a forgotten back alley, small and slightly blocked by a canvas tent.

This is the back alley of Mr Win Aye's estate, No. 6 Ward in Kamayut township. From his fourth-floor flat, not a square inch of ground can be seen. The narrow path is buried under empty cans, broken glass bottles, rotten vegetables and used Styrofoam boxes - all thoughtlessly thrown out the windows by residents.

Comprised mostly of government flats built close together, No 6 Ward is an example of a middle class residential area in rapidly modernising Yangon.

Mr Win Aye, 49, who is the chairman of the Ward Development Committee, often surveys the area.

"We cleaned up the back alley three years ago when we built the drainage system, but some of the residents still continue to throw their rubbish down from the windows," he said.

The rest of Yangon faces the same problem. The city is almost 600 sq km, about 80 per cent the land area of Singapore, with a similar population of 5.21 million. It produces up to 1,690 tonnes of solid waste every day, and this will only increase as the country opens up and attracts more foreign businessmen and people from parts of Myanmar to the city.

The Yangon City Development Council (YCDC), a government agency, can only handle up to 1,500 tonnes of waste a day. Budget constraints allow the YCDC only a limited increase in its waste management capacity each year, not nearly enough to tackle the ever-increasing amount of trash.

One solution the YCDC came up with was to privatise rubbish collection. That plan had to be dumped, however, when more than 80 per cent of Yangon residents rejected the proposal, even though two companies had won the tender. The increase in collection fees, from 600 kyat to 1,600 kyat (S$0.67 to S$1.76) a month, was cited as one of the main reasons.

But not everyone is against privatisation. Mr Tin Win, a 50-year-old waste collector, said: "Private companies will pay more . . . and have better working conditions."

Another waste collector, Mr Sitt Thi, 50, said that cleared rubbish chutes would be half-filled again less than an hour after clearing - a phenomenon unseen in the past.

Ironically, the growing trash problem has created an avenue of income for scavengers.

One can often hear the laughter of children at landfills. These kids tag along with their parents who scour the mountains of rubbish: a bag full of glass, paper or plastic can fetch about US$4 (S$5.60) from private recycling companies.

But if the waste problem continues to grow, it can add up to bigger problems like blocked sewage and health problems.

"People don't know that blockage can cause sewage water to overflow into the drinking water tank just below the block near the drains, and that is very dangerous," said Mr Win Aye.

Unfortunately, the YCDC has no concrete alternatives to the aborted privatisation plans.

But Mr Win Aye believes better efficiency can come from the government.

"Private (companies) will charge higher because they are profit-making, so why doesn't the government charge us a little more but less than the companies, and do better? " he wondered.

"This way, it can be cheaper for the public and the trash can be properly cleaned up."