GarbageCAN: Sustainable Solid Waste Management Solution Working in Karachi
You hang out with trash and you start to smell like garbage
– Caroline Manzo
Our city of lights, Karachi is expected to produce 16,000 tons of garbage daily by 2020. It is the peak time we consider utilizing this much waste efficiently. Ahmad Shabbar, a social entrepreneur, realizes the possible threats the city is facing currently and expected to face much severity in near future if this matter remains unresolved. In an attempt at being socially responsible, Ahmad along with his dedicated team came forward to provide a Sustainable Solid Waste Management Solution. His venture is named as GarbageCAN. Let’s talk to the founder and CEO of the project GarbageCAN, Ahmad Shabbar to explore more about his work
First, tell us about yourself.
I have two bachelor’s degrees, a BA in Physics from Reed College, and a BS in Mechanical and Energy Engineering from the University of North Texas. I’ve worked at a Research Nuclear Reactor (the Reed Research Reactor) at the age of 18, perhaps as the youngest Pakistani to do so. I also worked on a project with NASA to create a system which would remove CO2 from the airstream without having any moving parts. I completed my O’ levels and A’ levels from Foundation Public School, and Karachi Grammar School respectively.
Who is the mastermind behind Garbage CAN? How this idea generated and flourished?
When I came back from the States in January 2016, I was surprised and saddened by the fact that despite a lot of talk about cleaning up Karachi, not much was being done. Hence, I decided to try and figure out a way to create a waste management structure that would be sustainable. I started following dump trucks, Afghan kids collecting plastic bottles etc. I then realized that waste management would only be effective if sustainable practices such as recycling were combined with it. So, by November 2016, I had created GarbageCAN, Sustainable Waste Management.
We are going strong, but there are still many hurdles that we need to overcome in order to become self-sustained. But by promoting recycling, and making it second nature for Pakistanis, I believe that we can solve 80% of the waste issue. We have hope and we will continue our struggle.
How old is GarbageCAN?
GarbageCAN is about 1 year and 6 months old.
What is the business model of GarbageCAN?
There are different models for different entities. With restaurants, we follow a different model from households. We provide a different service to schools.
The common ground is that we focus on recyclable items. We ask our clients to either donate or sell recyclables to us. The recyclables together with a small service and transportation fee enable us to fund overall waste management services.
We essentially ask our clients to become recyclers, which, in effect, we are ourselves.
An important note is that we are a Social Entrepreneurship. We are not a welfare organization or an NGO. This may surprise some people, but we believe, and so do our support, that in order for any system to be sustainable, we need to sustain ourselves first. Only then is it a fully sustainable entity. We want to sustain the world, our community, our employees, and ourselves.
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Who was the supporter of your idea from day one?
On a personal level, my mother has been my biggest supporter in this venture! Always encouraging me as she believes in me.
On a professional level, my mother, again, has been my biggest supporter in this venture! She is a partner in GarbageCAN as she believes in the project.
What did your peers and family say when you flourish your idea of garbage collection and recycling?
This is a great question! Initially, they would mock the idea or would be confused. There were several fronts that they would challenge:
- Tum kachray walay bano gay? (You’re going to be a garbage man?)
- Tum akelay kaisay saaf karo gay? (How are you going to clean up the entire city?)
- Itna parh likh kar ab yeh kaam karo gay? (This is what you’re going to do after studying so much?)
My answers to those would simply be: Yes; I believe it can be done; and what’s wrong with this profession?
Unfortunately, there is this weird stigma in this profession. I also want to challenge that notion and to tell youngsters that waste management is a viable and solid profession.
Tell readers about your team.
Our team is quite small at the moment. 4-5 permanent employees, then we hire according to the need. Plus, everyone has multiple duties.
We have a manager, who doubles as a picker as he goes to restaurants and households to pick up recyclables.
We have a guard, who doubles as a sorter. He manually sorts recyclable items because we usually obtain mixed items from the sources.
Then two pickers who double as head janitors if janitorial services are required at events, clean-up drives, etc.
But we have a team who truly believe in our project too! Its always great to hear the pickers educate their peers, market vendors, and even the more educated clients about recycling and how our system works!
How many cities does Garbage CAN serve to date?
We have only focused on Karachi at the moment, as it is facing the largest crisis. 12,000 tons of waste a day is no joke.
Around how much garbage does your team collect on the daily basis?
It varies. At the moment we collect about 300-400 Kg of recyclables every day. Sometimes, we collect a ton! However, we do not quantify the waste that does not get recycled. To make an educated guess, probably around 200 Kg of non-recyclable waste.
All in all, we recycle about 12-15 tons of various items a month. Plus, we cleanly dispose of about a similar amount of waste.
Do you have any contracts with restaurants/wedding halls/event planners/factories/tanneries about collecting waste? How many are already on board?
At the moment we work with restaurants, schools, universities, and households. We currently serve 1 large restaurant (BBQ Tonite), 15 branches of schools (Happy Palace Grammar School and Dawood Public School). We used to work with the University of Karachi, and we have four to five households who regularly recycle!
What is your source of funds for the setup?
My mother and I worked together to set up GarbageCAN. I work elsewhere in order to help fund the business. Now, we have running costs from recyclable items, and if we go under sometimes, we pitch in from our pockets.
Currently, we are also running a fundraising effort on gofundme:
You can see the goals at the link.
What are the challenges you have faced so far?
There have been several:
- People wanting to know how they would benefit, other than a clean area.
- The garbage mafia is stopping us from cleaning up areas, and actually getting 6 guards to beat me up on one occasion.
- Helping people understand the concept of recycling.
- People seeking bribes to allow us to use the large garbage bins.
There are many more but, by the grace of God, we have overcome all challenges and will continue to do so.
Any memorable incident or experience so far regarding Garbage CAN you wanted to share.
There have been many, but the one that stands out the most is as follow:
Last year, we cleaned up Gaari Khaata’s four streets for a month with permission from the local residents. The political parties actively became concerned about who was cleaning up ‘their area’. They tried to drive us away, but the locals stood up to them. Now, we are told that even after a full year, the streets are still clean because the political workers don’t want anyone else entering their area.
It’s a win-win for everyone I guess. I find it’s a good story to tell.
Are you satisfied with what you are doing?
Yes, and no. Yes, because I am glad I started this work, and I have high hopes for it. No, because there is still a lot to be done, and I believe our efforts could be better.
Where do you see Garbage CAN five years ahead?
We hope that we will have a sustainable waste management company, working with the government to clean up entire districts of Karachi. We also hope to have the presence in other large cities such as Lahore, Islamabad, Quetta etc.
If anyone sitting abroad or remotely located, how can he be a part of this project?
First of all, if somebody lives in Karachi, we would be thankful if they could come to volunteer with us during events or when needed.
For those not in the city, the best way to contribute is to share our work with others. You can inform your friends and family in Karachi to start recycling and using our service!
Plus, currently we are trying to raising funds through gofundme:
We intend to build our infrastructure, obtain more vehicles, and machines to enable us to clean up waste and pick up recyclables. We would really appreciate it if people can contribute by either donating or sharing the link forward!
You can also show support by liking and following our Facebook page:
Also, soon, Inshallah, we will also begin an internship program! I believe that would be a great way for people to become a part of our team in combatting this issue and promoting sustainability!
It was very nice talking to Ahmed. His thoughts and ambitions are crystal clear. Tubelight.pk team wishes you and your team a great luck. We assure our presence and support whenever it is needed for the cleaner city.