<i>By Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter</i>

From a shed in a quiet courtyard a few hundred yards from the chaos of the city streets, Shrestha tries to turn Kathmandu garbage into its energy future. Everything from seaweed to sawdust makes its way into his Foundation for Sustainable Technologies, coming out the other end a "briquette" of low-smoke, long-burning fuel that he believes could change the lives of the poor in Nepal and elsewhere.

"Every bit of grass has energy," he proclaims with a broad smile, showing off the fuel bricks he has made from dried leaves, kitchen scraps and even date pits from the Middle East. "I just make energy from the waste material that we produce."

About 3 billion people across the globe cook by burning biomass like wood, crude coal or animal dung. The World Health Organization estimates that toxic smoke from such unsafe cookstoves is responsible for nearly 2 million premature deaths every year, and contributes to everything from low birth weight to respiratory infections.

Groups like the U.N. Foundation have sought to change that trend. Through the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, the U.N. Foundation, along with the Clinton Global Initiative and others, is working to see 100 million homes in developing countries adopt cleaner cooking alternatives by 2020.

Yet in Nepal, where only 10 percent of households are connected to the power grid, Shrestha said, convincing people to change their way of cooking is no easy feat.

Shreshtha was a part-time inventor even before he retired from the World Bank in 2001. His first creation was a small solar cooker. Having seen one at an exhibition, he decided in 1995 to make his own after one of Kathmandu's kerosene shortages.

Funding from Rotary clubs

His wife, however, would have nothing to do with it.

"Solar cooking habit is not the Nepali habit. It's very difficult to cook dal bhat," he said, referring to the lentil and rice dish that is a staple of nearly every Nepali meal.

The recycler: Sanu Kaji Shrestha holds a fuel "briquette" made from pulped, compressed garbage. Photo by Lisa Friedman.
"I had to cook it for her myself to convince her it would taste the same," Shrestha said. He did the same for his neighbors. "That is the main thing, not changing the food habit."

A few years later, the idea for fuel briquettes was born when Kathmandu's drains became blocked in a major flood. The culprit: wet cardboard boxes clogging the pipes. Shrestha took some, mashed them into a pulp and molded it with a tin can.

"This is my diamond," he said, holding up that first lump of grayish-brown hardened pulp. Since then, he has worked constantly to refine the briquettes, mashing them first with a lever press that required three people before coming up with a device that a single person could operate. The goal, he said, is to develop a process that people, particularly people in poor and rural areas, can do easily on their own. Then he serves a glass of sweet tea, cooked over a small briquette fire.

As with solar cookstoves, he said, convincing the public to use cleaner-burning and longer-lasting waste fuel will take time despite the benefits. But, he said, "Once we show people food will take less time and taste as good, then they will accept it."

Though his work has been recognized by the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, the British Council and U.S. EPA, Shrestha's foundation receives little outside funding beyond support from some Rotary clubs in the United States. With that, though, he has traveled from Cambodia to Afghanistan to train villages on ways to segregate waste and use it wisely. He wants to see the movement spread.

Said Shrestha, "People used to say, 'Water for all.' That was the global vision. I say, 'Why not fuel for all?' We have the full resources."