Zuhal Atmar, 35, has set up a recycling plant in the city of Kabul where she processes 33 tons of garbage weekly. She is the first woman in Afghanistan, a country with deeply rooted conservative values, to have started such a business.
Her determination stems from her wish to live “greener,” she says, and from her realization that Kabul has been, at least in Afghanistan, contributing to the global issue of climate change.
“The city has one of the worst air pollution rates, and we toss away absurd quantities of one-time-use plastic,” Atmar said. “I had to change something.”
Atmar, who grew up in Pakistan and returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and completing college, has been in the trash business for seven years. She first set up a waste-management plant where she separated useful garbage from trash. Later, she purchased $240,000 worth of Chinese machinery to focus on recycling specifically. She purchased this machinery with a combination of her own savings and donations by the U.S. government through the USAID program.
Her factory, located between mud-brick houses on the far eastern outskirts of the city, primarily manages paper waste, which she buys from scavengers who roam the streets daily, collecting items of value that have been thrown out. Inside the factory, piles of trash are hand-sorted by her 70 employees, singling out any plastic or perishables.
Trash collection is barely regulated in Kabul, and while there are 1,500 drop-off points, thousands of people scavenge for trash. “Each ton costs 4,500 Afghani,” or $57 she said.
After being sorted, the machines shred, clean and bleach the paper before it is dried and pressed into toilet paper that’s sold across the country.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Atmar said her work deeply affects her personal life. Her business started off smoothly, but she quickly received threats to her life, and a handful of men who run similar businesses have teamed up to bring her down, she said.
“There’s a lot of judgement and many people are bothered by me running my own business,” she said. “It’s jealousy and wrong competition, and I think men here feel threatened. I might face more challenges as a woman, but it just means I have to fight harder. I’m not going to stay behind.”
Atmar, who gets up before sunrise each morning to manage both her household and business, says she wants to set up additional recycling plants and advocacy campaigns to teach people how to produce less trash, and introduce paper bags to replace plastic ones.
“Kabul is environmentally unhealthy. Pollution is skyrocketing, especially in winter when coal is burned everywhere, and septic sewage contaminates our water. When it comes to the environment, we can’t wait for peace to come first. We need to act now,” she said.
According to the city, Kabul’s 6 million people generate up to 308 tons of trash each day, with most ending up in the city’s only landfill, neither separated nor reused. The city targets about $14 million annually for waste management, an amount that’s not nearly enough, says Behzad Ghyasi, the municipality’s former Director of Sanitation Services.
Sources: LA Times 11/25/19; MENAFN 11/30/19