solid waste management in karachi

Written by Sameen Wasim 10:47 am Pakistan, Published Content, Research Papers

An Analysis of Solid Waste Management in Karachi

Disregarded as an inconsequential matter in Pakistan, this paper focuses on solid waste management in Karachi, one of its largest cities.
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About the Author(s)
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Ms Sameen Wasim is pursuing social development and policy at Habib University. She is a social activist and works in various non-profit organizations.

Solid Waste Management

Solid waste includes residential, commercial, and institutional waste, which is non-hazardous, along with industrial and medical waste, which is hazardous (Nathanson, 2020). ‘Solid waste management thus, combines all activities performed to keep any place or a city clean regularly, as it includes handling of waste collection and disposal, sewerages, treatment of waste, recycling, and tackling health and hygiene issues’ (Sabir, Waheed, and et.al., 2016, p.151).

The non-hazardous solid waste from a community that requires collection and transport to a processing or disposal site is called refuse or municipal solid waste, which is further divided into two categories: garbage and rubbish. Garbage constitutes wet, organic, and easily decomposable materials like food waste, while rubbish constitutes dry, inorganic materials that are hard to decompose like glass, paper, and plastic (Nathanson, 2020).

Background and Context             

Although developing countries have lower consumption rates as compared to developed countries, they still face many problems in handling solid waste material ‘which is rapidly escalating due to the rise in population and the rate of development’ (Sabir, Waheed, and et.al., 2016, p.152). Thus, solid waste management is not a problem that is limited to any one city; it is a global dilemma, especially for urban cities in developed and developing countries alike (Mahmood and Khan, 2019). 

Submissions 2023

Regardless of how widespread the problem is, solid waste is an important issue for society at large, and for policymakers to address, as global warming is taking place due to the rising concentration of harmful greenhouse gases in our atmosphere i.e. carbon dioxide and methane. Managing such solid waste can reduce the negative impact caused by these gases on the atmosphere. (Sabir, Waheed, et.al. 2016).

‘Solid waste collection and management in Pakistani cities, for instance, averages only at 50% of waste generated, however, for the cities to be clean, at least 75% of these solid waste quantities should be collected’ (Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, 2005, p.7). On the other hand, many countries, including Scandinavian countries have employed some effective and efficient models of solid waste management that can be replicated in developing countries like Pakistan in the long run given that the political will and concerns for the environment increases in the society as a whole (Mahmood and Khan, 2019). 

On the national level, few policies regarding the environment have been legislated, for instance, The Pakistan Environmental Protection Act (PEPA) in 1997, which focuses on the protection from environmental pollution, and the conservation of renewable resources (Sabir, Waheed, and et.al. 2016). ‘The National Sanitation Policies were established by the Federal Government in September 2006; the goal was to emphasize the three R’s: recycling, reduction, and reuse.

An Integrated Sustainable Waste Management (ISWM) model was also developed in the 1990s as the first consolidated framework for the betterment of the urban environment in cities that can be used to integrate all practices of waste collection, disposal, treatment, and recycling into one unified efficient waste management system’(Sabir, Waheed, and et.al., 2016,p.153). However, the implementation of these policies has not been ensured as of yet.

Solid Waste Management in Karachi

Karachi, located on the south coast of Pakistan, is a metropolitan city that houses more than 20 million people (Statistics, 2017). This city is also considered the business hub of Pakistan with an ever-growing rate of commercial activities. Although it is considered a megacity, Karachi has its fair share of problems — including the discrepancies in the solid waste management system (Mahmood and Khan, 2019).

In fact, ‘Karachi has seen an upward trajectory in its solid waste, from 2000 tonnes per day before 1974 to 6000 tonnes in 2001. By 2005, it had leapfrogged to 9000 tonnes per day, and, now, it stands at a staggering 12000 tonnes per day’ (Mahmood and Khan, 2019, p.78). The rate of generation of solid waste has also changed in Karachi in recent years due to the booming population, coupled with increased urbanization, lifestyle changes, a rise in fast-food chains, and commercial activities (Mahmood and Khan, 2020).

The large rural influx into Karachi, mass migrations, and overpopulation mean that there is also a decline in the basic urban resources such as housing, clean water, and sewerage systems. This has also resulted in the rise in Katchi Abadis (squatter settlements), which account for more than 30% of Karachi’s population (Guideline for Solid Waste Management, 2005).

Moreover, people living in Katchi Abadis are deprived of solid waste disposal facilities, hence they dump solid waste in natural drains, streets, parks, or even in varying open areas. The municipal institutions, on the other hand, do not have sufficient resources to manage the needs of the growing population — plus the lack of planning, financial, and technological constraints add to the problem of solid waste management in Karachi.

Karachi only has had four master plans for the city since 1947, and all of them have failed to reach the development, planning, and solid waste management targets — including the latest plan, that is, the Karachi Development plan 2020. The new plan is now also on the verge of failing (Mahmood and Khan, 2019). 

There has also been an increase in fast-food restaurants in the 21st century, which has exacerbated the solid waste generation and disposal problems. Many ‘smaller restaurants and businesses mostly do not adhere to the relevant policies towards hygiene and health — and dispose of solid waste out in the open’ (p.79).

For instance, municipal officials claimed that they cleaned the Tariq road commercial areas twice a day, and yet they would find waste scattered all around the shops the very next morning (Ghouri, 2015). As a result ‘the refuse management is deteriorating in Karachi, as bridges, roads, localities are constantly surrounded by solid waste’ (Mahmood and Khan, 2019, p.79).

Problem Statement

Illegal dumping also leads to the open burning of waste at various points around the city, which is extremely harmful to the health and well-being of the citizens — and for the environment (Mahmood and Khan, 2019). Some even started burning their waste, which is now increasing the levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the atmosphere.

The air quality has deteriorated in Karachi due to the open burning of waste, and the same has led to health problems ‘such as respiratory diseases, chest infections, and coughing. Improper waste management has also added to waterborne diseases such as gastric problems and hepatitis’ (Mahmood and Khan, 2019, p.81). Solid waste negatively impacts water quality and leads to soil pollution, climate change, and adverse effects on flora and fauna.

Keeping in mind the same, there is an urgent need to halt illegal dumping and outdoor burning of waste, which causes smoke, environmental degradation — and also results in diseases (Sabir, Waheed, and et.al. 2016). Solid waste effects are most evident in Katchi Abadis and the trash problems there have deadly consequences. Al Jazeera (2017) reports that three children in one of these squatter settlements died when a garbage pile caught fire in an alley next to their home.

People living in Katchi Abadis also have to bear the consequences of the poor waste management system more than anyone else as heaps of garbage are piled up near their homes. This results in vector-borne diseases, that is, diseases caused by insects and rodents (like malaria and chikungunya) which affect the health and well-being of the people residing there (Nathanson, 2020).

The environmentalist critic rightfully calls the link between the impact of pollution and health problems as slow violence (Rob Nixon, 2011) — which is often inflicted upon the marginalized and poor people, like the plight of improper solid waste management on the Katchi Abadi residents in Karachi.

Current System of Waste Management

In Karachi, the responsibility of waste collection and transportation falls under Town Administrators, and treatment and disposal of refuse are handled by the City District Government (CDGK) (Mahmood and Khan, 2020). Under the CDGK fall two cantonment boards, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), and the District Municipal Corporation (DMC).

These two controlled the solid waste management system in Karachi up until 2014, and then ‘under the Sindh Act No. 4 of 2014, the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board (SSWM) was formed — which became responsible for the solid waste management of areas that fell under KMC’ (p.81). Furthermore under the City district Government (CDGK), ‘Karachi is split into six districts with further divisions into 18 sub-districts or tehsils, and every tehsil is administratively separated into 178 union councils which manage the solid waste of their areas’(Sabir, Waheed, and et. al., 2016).

Also, the disposal system in Karachi is divided into three main phases: 

  • FEC (Front-end collection): The collection of waste from muhalla kachra kundis, union council kachra kundis, and street bins.
  • GTS (Garbage-transfer station): These are big grounds that are used to dump garbage collection from FECs, and serve as a facility to sort recyclables ideally.
  • LFS (Landfill sites): Where waste is dumped under the land. Karachi has only two functional landfill sites: five hundred acres of land each on the Northern Bypass side, namely Deh Pass Gondal and Deh Jam Chakro (Baseline Study for Solid Waste Management-Karachi, n.d.).

However, ‘out of the 9000 tonnes of municipal waste generated every day in Karachi, only sixty percent is discarded in the landfills, and the other forty percent remains on the streets around us’ (Sabir, Waheed, and et.al., 2016,p.152).

Main Problem Areas

Citizens and Municipalities

In the formal solid waste management system, there are two major stakeholders: the citizens and municipalities. However, both the parties blame each other for the discrepancies in the solid waste management system as ‘according to the Secretary of SSWMB, 80% of garbage is lifted from the grounds to be dumped into garbage-transfer stations, and later on, it is transferred to landfill sites.

According to the survey on solid waste management conducted, 74.8% of the population is not satisfied with the government’s efforts in countering the disposal problem, 23.7% is unsure, while a mere 1.5% approve’ (Mahmood and Khan, 2019, p.81). Citizens are dissatisfied with the strategies of the municipal authorities regarding solid waste management; many citizens do not trust the authorities and believe that they do not have enough resources, funds, or equipment to tackle the growing sewerage and waste problems.

Citizens also believe that municipal authorities only perform their duties in rich neighborhoods and not the poor ones — where the people are not able to afford their services and cannot pay 200 hundred rupees every month for the garbage collection. It is, however, a right of every citizen, rich or poor, to live in a clean environment (Sabir, Waheed, and et.al. 2016).

Municipal authorities, on the other hand, believe that they alone cannot handle the waste problems of a whole city — and believe that citizens should play their part. Authorities complain that citizens throw garbage at any nearby convenient point. Authorities also believe that citizens do not take responsibility for waste management beyond their homes — and constantly litter the roads and other public areas.

However, they forget that many people live below the poverty line in Karachi and cannot afford the expense of waste collectors. This is mainly why they engage in illegal dumping of waste (Sabir, Waheed, and et.al., 2016).

Challenges Facing the Formal System of Waste Management

Municipal authorities are also facing several challenges as solid waste collection and storage facilities are inadequate. There are very few communal bins provided across the city, and those also low capacity and poor maintenance. The municipalities also do not collect the waste regularly, and the waste starts to decay and pollute the environment. The sweepers often find it convenient to dump the solid waste in drains and open plots (Ali and Hasan, 2001).

There are other problems faced by the authorities as well in collecting garbage from roads and streets as the large trucks available to the town administrators cannot enter small alleys and housing areas. The vehicles used for transporting the waste are outdated as well, and they breakdown frequently. Moreover, the funds for regular maintenance are limited, and the trucks take a long time for maintenance, which halts the waste collection services further (Sabir, Waheed, and et.al., 2016). 

‘Refuse vehicles (often uncovered) make 2 to 3 trips per day to dump sites, often with a round trip distance of more than 60 km’ (Ali and Hasan, 2001, p.6) as the landfill sites are far away from the garbage transfer stations. As a result, less than one-third of the waste is reaching the officially owned and designated disposal sites, and the rest either disperses from open trucks or is taken to the unofficial disposal sites (Ali and Hasan, 2001).

The municipal personnel involved in solid waste management are also not trained properly. The manual system of the waste collection means that the number of sweepers is also largely disproportionate i.e. ‘1.06 sweepers per 1000 persons’ (Ali and Hasan, 200, p.7). Additionally, the government’s budget allocation for solid waste management is also limited. High rates of corruption amongst authorities lead to poor results as well (Ali and Hasan, 2001). Therefore, there is a need to change current policies and improve the waste management system overall.

The Informal Solid Waste Management System and Inadequate Landfill Sites

‘The role of the informal sector is not recognized and hence not incorporated in the planning and operation of solid waste management systems’ (Ali and Hasan, 2001, p.7). The scavengers (usually of Afghan descent) bribe the municipal staff and ask them not to pick up the waste so that they can sort the waste themselves and gather the recyclable materials from it. 

There are scavenger colonies in Karachi as well, which bribe and pay the DMC staff per truck for delivering the waste to them instead of taking it to the official landfill sites. Moreover, there are only two landfill sites for the whole city and both are almost 40 km away from the garbage transfer stations which becomes a huge disincentive to both the formal staff, and the private sector.

‘Waste is also taken to potter’s settlements where it is used as fuel in kilns’ (Ali and Hasan, 2001.p.3). Here again, the municipal staff and police are the beneficiaries who extort funds from the contractors of the informal waste system to not pick up waste from different points in the city (Ali and Hasan, 2001).

The key questions and ethical debates associated with this problem are that ‘the recycling industry employs more than 55,000 families, and its annual turnover is over Rs 1.2 billion. Its activities have increased by over 65% in the last seven years, and it is estimated that there are more than 1,000 recycling units, and almost all of them are in the informal sector’ (Ali and Hasan, 2001, p.3). This is why it is not possible to finish the informal system as it is a source of livelihood for a large number of people.

Nevertheless, the informal recycling industries are creating many problems as they are mostly located in poor neighborhoods and not in the designated industrial sites of the city. The neighbors complain about their presence as well, as the recycling of plastic and metal ‘creates environmental pollution and degradation’ (Ali and Hasan, 2001, p.3)

Problems of Landfill Sites

The landfill sites in Karachi are treated as dumping grounds for all sorts of waste, and as a result, they have become saturated. ‘Landfill sites are not properly equipped and there is only one site working with just one weighing station. It needs up to 10 minutes for each dumper to unload and if it works for 24 hours a day, it still cannot unload more than 144 dumpers, resulting in dumping of approximately 4,500 tons while the generation is around 9000 tonnes’ (Ali and Hasan, 2001, p.7).

Composition of Waste and Lost Potential

‘The waste composition analysis of household, vegetable and fruit markets has shown that the organic fraction (food waste) has the highest proportion ranging from 36.1% to 93% (weight/weight) of the solid municipal waste generated in the city’ (United Nations ESCAP, n.d., p.1). However, the current practice of solid waste management involves disposing of all categories of waste collected onto the landfill sites, which is not sustainable and causes many environmental problems.

The garbage can be used for composting and production of biogas as well, but this is presently not the practice. Only a moderate proportion of people segregate their recyclable waste, the recycling at home is usually done by females. The contribution of metal, plastic, and paper is high in the recycling industry — however, there is a need to maximize the gain from the recycling of waste as well. (United Nations ESCAP, n.d)


There is a considerable amount of plastic in the solid waste generated in Karachi. Both the quality and quantity of plastic waste creates environmental problems, especially the post-consumption plastic, which eventually becomes litter. The formal recycling industry usually only treats the industrial plastic waste (less contaminated) while the domestic plastic waste and post-consumer plastic waste (more contaminated) is left for the informal recycling industry.

Scavengers also sort the plastics out from the waste, but as plastic is found in large volumes and greater quantities; it still ends up in the litter, and is scattered and carried away by the wind all around the city. Plastic is also harmful to animals like cows and fish. They may mistakenly ingest plastic while nibbling on edible items. These are additional reasons for controlling the production and consumption of plastic (Guideline for Solid Waste Management, 2005).

Current policies and the Role of Stakeholders 

The Sindh government has formulated policies to halt littering and illegal dumping in Karachi. However, these policies have not affected the problem of littering and illegal dumping; since there is little to no implementation. Also, the fines are set too low to deter the citizens and the sweepers from dumping their waste openly.

Since the informal system of waste management includes the scavenging and informal recycling industry as well, not taking them into account in policymaking disrupts the whole system of waste management. The general public and opposition parties are in favor of changing the existing policies. The civil society and certain NGOs, like Fixit, are working to improve the conditions of waste management on their own.

The international environmental protection agencies like The United Nations Environmental Protection (UNEP) agency are towards the same in Karachi as well. Some private-sector firms are looking for the right opportunities to invest in the waste management system but are not supported by the government. Chinese firms were also given the contract of waste management in Karachi, but they have not yet started their operations (Khan and Mahmood, 2019).

Nevertheless, the current policies have to be changed as the problem of illegal dumping, and plastic burning is only increasing. Thus, this paper will provide alternatives to improve the waste management system as proposed by various policymakers in Karachi — and will also recommend a twofold policy and an action plan.


Social Interventions 

  1. Increase awareness about environmental degradation, as well as the detrimental effects of illegal waste dumping, plastic use, and burning waste on the health of the general public.
  2. Increase emphasis on 3Rs (Reduce, reuse, recycle), and encourage recycling at home — which would help salvage more material from the overall garbage. Sorting at the source will also help reduce the burden on the solid waste system. (Sabir, Waheed, and et.al. 2016).
  3. Encourage educational institutes to increase awareness among students. This can be done by arranging garbage collection for students through volunteer programs like clean-up drives. Students can also be taught and encouraged to recycle waste at homes (Mahmood and Khan, 2019).

New Legislations

  1. Ban single-use plastic in supermarkets and commercial areas.
  2. Ban plastic consumption as much as possible. This has already been done in Malir Cantt (an area in Karachi). This can be done by educating and encouraging people to use alternates (for example tote bags).
  3. Implement proper fines/punishment for littering. The fine for littering is a paltry 200 rupees, and imprisonment of six months. However, the implementation is non-existent. Some policymakers have suggested that the fine should be increased to up to 50,000 rupees, while others have expressed the need for increased implementation of the existing punishment. (Express Tribune, 2019).
  4. Create mechanisms for citizens’ participation and consultation — alongside engaging in increased dialogue with civic organizations working towards the same agenda (Mahmood and Khan, 2019).
  5. Increase transparency for the public, and the government. ‘There should be more transparency between the masses and the government as the public does not have easy access to the information about either the factors leading to pollution or the steps taken by the government to improve the situation. Also, updated computerized data should be maintained for the government, as it will help enhance the management of the ongoing projects’ (Mahmood and Khan, 2019, p. 82). The data available on the quantity and quality of the waste generated and collected is inaccurate and underestimated, and it should be recalculated to undertake the management of solid waste accordingly.
  6. Use technology to eradicate the problem. SSWMB introduced an app to resolve waste issues in Karachi — but it has been launched for only two districts as of now (Samaa, 2020).
  7. Hire and train the right number of people to manage waste effectively.
  8. Form a board, where all the landowners of Karachi can be given membership. In this way, they can collectively work on the problem and help each other in terms of using innovative techniques to counter the solid waste problem (Mahmood and Khan, 2019).
  9. Reduce the gap between different departments and authorities to avoid management lapses.

Composting and Recycling of Waste

  1. ‘Encourage garbage recycling in households and sabzi mandis. For instance, the use of vegetable biomass as a fertilizer for the production of vegetables and fruits; and as food for livestock should be encouraged’ (Mahmood and Khan, 2019, p.82).
  2. Give incentive to private companies like TrashIt to increase their scale of operations (as they are already in the composting business).
  3. Make and implement agreements with foreign companies, private recycling companies, and informal waste pickers to effectively tackle the refuse problem.

Analysis of the alternatives

The alternatives suggested above would help improve citizens’ conduct, as well as increase the process efficiency — and appropriate legislation would help alleviate the problem even further. However, poor planning, lack of awareness, and inadequate funds have made the implementation of the alternatives suggested above very difficult.

Also, the contracts with recycling companies, even Chinese contractors, have not reached fruition due to the lack of political will. These alternatives have not become policies because of varying political agendas, and because of the current gap between the federal and provincial governments.


Improving the generation, composition, and storage of refuse

  • Sorting of recyclables like paper, glass, and metal should be done at source (domestic and commercial)  (Nathanson, 2020).
  • Garbage composting should be done in households to grow organic fruits and vegetables.
  • The garbage from sabzi mandis should be transferred to farming areas as fertilizer for organic farming. Moreover, the installation of biogas plants at sabzi mandis can be done by private companies to produce gas efficiently.
  • Increasing awareness of composting methods and recycling in public should be done through mass media and social media, alongside collaborations with notable religious scholars to increase awareness about waste management, and the importance of cleanliness.  
  • Compulsory sessions and classes in educational institutions should be conducted to increase awareness around waste management.
  • There should be a ban on plastic in Karachi in terms of both production and consumption.
  • Subsidies for companies like TrashIt should be announced to encourage composting on a large scale and also for small-scale producers to develop alternatives to plastic and shopping bags.
  • Contracts should be entered into with private companies, e.g. Waste Buster in Lahore, which can provide separate bins in each community for recyclables and non-recyclables. This would help sort the waste at the source rather than at the garbage transfer stations.
  • Investments should be made (through public-private partnerships) to purchase adequate transport vehicles and  also to  automate the manual waste collection system
  • Accountability of municipal staff should be increased, along with fines on illegal dumping and the budget of waste management in Karachi.
  • There should be a moderate increase in garbage collection charges from the richer parts of the city – and the same money can be used to fund the garbage collection in the squatter settlements.

Treatment and Disposal

  • There is a dire need to integrate the informal waste workers and recycling industries in the formal waste management system. ‘If scavenging and recycling can be shifted to the landfill site then there will no problems with the waste reaching the landfill’ (Ali and Hasan, 2001, p.4)
  • There is a need to provide the scavengers infrastructure, housing, water, and other facilities (even subsidized food) to live near the landfill sites This would serve as an incentive to relocate from the city to landfills sites.
  • Subsidies can be given to private entrepreneurs as ‘they have expressed an interest in developing and managing landfill sites — provided that they are easily accessible and not too far away from their areas of operation’(Ali and Hasan, 2001,p.4)
  • The informal recycling industry has also shown interest to move away from the city. However, it requires land, road access, electricity, water, and preferably living space for its workers (Ali and Hasan, 2001.p.4). The same should be considered at the government level – and adequate facilities should be provided for the same.
  • ‘There should be four landfill sites in Karachi – each handling about 1,500 tonnes of solid waste per day. They should be relocated so that refuse trucks do not have to travel more than 15 kilometers to them’(p.4)
  • ‘Jam Chakro, the present official site should be developed as a model to handle 1,500 tonnes of solid waste per day. It should contain 30 sorting yards and 18 recycling factories along with 600 60 M2 plots for scavengers’(p.4)
  • Prevention of scavenging at the katchra kundis can be stopped if the waste is not exposed and is collected and transported in transferable sealed containers (Ali and Hasan, 2001).

Feasibility of the Proposal


  • Extensive research on the integration of informal workers in the waste management industry has been published, and has real-life examples from Brazil and India. The same models can be studied and similar models can be implemented in Karachi.  
  • All the stakeholders involved (including the municipal authorities, citizens, recycling companies and industries, and informal workers can be convinced to work towards the same goal) – provided they are given the right incentives, services, and support.
  • Implementation of the recommendations will serve to ensure the livelihood and sustainability of informal workers and recycling industries.
  • Bribes taken by varying stakeholders can be minimized, and the same money can be redirected to legitimate avenues (ultimately leading to increased tax revenue).
  • All communities will ultimately benefit from decreased pollution and better living standards. Moreover, health hazards (caused by pollution) will ultimately be reduced.
  • The table on the right (Ali and Hasan, 2001) shows six options for the costs of proposed landfill sites. The fifth option shows a surplus and thus, may prove to be more feasible than the rest.  
  • Both the government and civil society organizations would support the recommendations given that the major costs are borne by the private sector.


  • The project requires public cooperation at many levels – and if the public refuses to cooperate, the program will most likely not be successful.
  • The scavenging contractors who are making money through illegal means (and saving on taxes) in the current informal waste system might object.
  • Traditional fertilizer companies may object against composting and organic fertilizers as their businesses will be threatened. However, they can be given subsidies to develop organic fertilizers to ensure fair competition in the market.
  • The recommendations do not cater to hazardous industrial waste – which may ultimately pose a bigger threat.
  • Determining appropriate locations for landfill sites requires significant time, cost, and effort as the locations have to be studied extensively to ensure that they are located strategically, and do not lead to any groundwater pollution.
  • The more affluent neighborhoods may object to being charged more fees for garbage collection than before.

Action Plan

If the plan is implemented efficiently and effectively, the current illegal dumping, burning of waste, and solid waste management problems in katchi abadis can be significantly reduced in the next five years. However, the integration of informal workers in the formal system of waste management could take more time to be implemented citywide, and the process would need full support from the regulatory bodies to ensure its success.  


Solid waste management problems require the immediate attention of policymakers to improve the deteriorating situation in Karachi. The recommendation in this policy paper can help manage the growing refuse problems (including illegal dumping and waste burning) but there is a need for significant investment and a comprehensive action plan to save Karachi before the health problems and environmental issues become intolerable for citizens to survive.


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