Regular waste collection dramatically reduces number of disease-carrying flies, study finds

Anne Gulland
Waste seen around people's homes in Islamabad - Hazel Thompson/Tearfund

A study looking at the health impacts of discarded waste in Pakistan has found that the number of flies is five times lower in houses where rubbish is collected regularly compared to those where it is not.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine carried out the study in a slum district of Islamabad for the NGO Tearfund to highlight the health hazards of uncollected waste.

A report earlier this year by Tearfund, alongside charities WasteAid and Flora & Fauna International, estimated that uncollected plastic waste leads to between 400,000 and one million deaths a year.

Sir David Attenborough, who wrote the forward to the report, said that plastic pollution was an “unfolding catastrophe that has been overlooked for too long”.

Sir David, whose Blue Planet television programme brought the impact of plastic in the oceans to the world's attention, said it was time to act “not only for the health of our planet, but for the wellbeing of people around the world”.

Rich Gower, senior associate for economics and policy at Tearfund, said that it while it might seem obvious that there would be fewer flies in houses where rubbish was collected, the researchers had not expected to find such a large difference.

“This is not something that’s been studied before and it proves that regular waste collection can reduce the fly population by a factor of five. That’s pretty astounding,” he said.

“It’s very obvious if you walk into a community without waste collection there are flies everywhere. Waste is a big problem in these communities. A lot of households report flooding and blocked drains as a result of waste, as well as rodents and children playing in areas where there is a lot of rubbish,” he said.

Just one in four people globally have their rubbish collected so plastic and other waste often ends up discarded in the environment, blocking waterways and drains. This leads to flooding, which, in countries with poor sanitation, can cause outbreaks of cholera and other diarrhoeal diseases, as well as drowning.

Discarded plastic also provides a fertile breeding ground for disease vectors such as flies and mosquitoes. And rubbish is often burned, creating toxic fumes. 

The researchers carried out the study over six weeks in six slum communities, covering around 1,000 households in total.

Four communities did not have their waste collected and two did. Researchers put fly traps - sticky tapes - in homes and then compared the number of flies between the households that did and did not have waste collection.

The interim results are part of a three-year study looking at a range of harmful health impacts of rubbish. It will also look at exposure to smoke from burning of waste and the frequency of flooding near homes that use waterways for waste disposal.

Earlier this year Tearfund, with support from the Department for International Development, raised nearly £9 million to build 10 recycling hubs in some of the poorest communities in Hyderabad and Karachi. 

Waste collection is common in wealthier parts of the country but it is practically unheard of in slum areas.

With partners, including the provincial government, Tearfund has already opened a pilot recycling hub for 2,000 households in the poorest parts of Islambad.

Around half the waste collected is organic which is composted. Other waste is recycled and what is left - about 10 per cent - goes to landfill. Households pay a nominal fee of around 50p a month for the waste collection, with around 80 per cent of households in the pilot area opting in.

The charity hopes that the hubs will eventually be self sustaining as they will also make money from selling compost and recycled goods. Jonathan Johnson, Pakistan country director for Tearfund, said that the hubs should make a great difference. 

“People that don’t have a waste collection are forced to live amongst it, put it into waterways or burn it,” he said. “The people we are working with often didn’t understand the economic value of the waste, we are developing a strong social enterprise model where we can make the waste valuable,” he said. 

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