Practical Action: World Habitat Day used to highlight role of the informal sector in solid waste management in Bangladesh

Practical Action: World Habitat Day used to highlight role of the informal sector in solid waste management in Bangladesh

Practical Action was delighted to be invited to participate in the national celebrations of World Habitat Day in Bangladesh, and to share our experiences in how best to tackle the growing crisis. As the country urbanises it is estimated that waste volumes will increase from 20,000 tonnes per day in 2014 up to 47,000 tonnes by 2025.

We were able to use the event as an opportunity to highlight both the scale of the crisis and the start of a new initiative: the ‘Dignifying Lives’ project, supported with funds from the European Instrument for Democracy & Human Rights (EIDHR). The project works directly with informal waste workers to create a decent working environment, better wages and social inclusion, in collaboration with municipalities, recycling enterprises and civil society organisations.

This new work is part of a wider programme through which Practical Action is seeking to help transform the solid waste management landscape in Bangladesh.

A growing solid waste crisis: Information about solid waste, its composition, and how much is collected or recycled, is hard to come by. Studies have been done at the city level but information is not regularly updated, nor is it collected comprehensively. In Dhaka, a study in 2013 found that nearly half the waste generated is organic and compostable, and another 31% is a mix of organic materials, sand and dust. About a fifth (18%) is inorganic (plastics, glass, metal etc.). The informal sector is the main means by which waste is collected, sorted and recycled, handling about 22% of Dhaka’s waste. 

In towns and cities around the country, the municipality usually collects wastes from dustbins, streets, and sometimes from drains using trolleys, trucks or other convenient transports, and often dumps these into low lying lands ditches/ water bodies at the outskirts of city or unsanitary landfills. Through this mechanism, on an average, around 50% of the generated waste of the country is managed, while the remaining portion gets disposed indiscriminately. It can be a breeding ground for the spread of disease, and blocks drainage channels increasing the risks from flooding. It emits an estimated 2.19 million tonnes of carbon each year, which is why better management of municipal waste is something the country has committed to under the Paris Climate agreement.

Action is being taken, but needs to be scaled up: Action is beginning to be taken by the Government and other stakeholders. The Department for Public Health Engineering (DPHE), with the support from UNICEF, UK Aid, and the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), teamed up with multiple NGOs, and research organizations to initiate different innovative waste management related initiatives. A few major examples include, Waste Concern, Practical Action, Prodipan, Prism, Rustic, WasteSafe, ITN BUET etc. The interventions include introducing the community waste collection services, construction of secondary transfer station, procurement of vehicles for secondary transfer of wastes and recycling of organic waste to produce compost.  

Practical Action implements Integrated Solid Waste Management (ISWM) approaches working across aspects of generation, segregation, transfer, sorting, treatment, recovery and disposal. We bring a wide range of stakeholders together including the community, local authorities, NGOs, inorganic waste traders, informal waste workers, service providers and donors coordinated by municipalities and strongly promote public private partnership. We have seen the importance of various simple, appropriate technologies coupled with robust business models in ensuring a sustainable and low-cost service for residents.

We know that just installing more waste collection bins is not the answer. It can simply create hotspots for pollution. More integrated approaches are need including, for example:

  1. Waste to compost: Practical Action has implemented a number of projects for collecting organic waste from households and processing it to create compost. Waste collected door-to door are transferred to a recycling plant by motorized three wheelers. It is sorted by workers at the plant, and the organic portion is composted. During the maturation period, waste workers record the temperature and spray water in case of above 20 degree Celsius. The matured wastes are taken out after 56 days and placed at a designated place of the plant for further maturation. Once matured, the compost are then dried and screened and tested in laboratory before final packaging.

In Partnership with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), about 300 informal waste workers have been turned into green entrepreneurs. Among them 50% were women and 5% with disabilities. Recently, Practical Action is in the process of creating a green Job portal in partnership with BDJobs.com.

  1. Waste to biogas: Practical Action has also demonstrated waste to biogas technologies in different parts of Bangladesh. The gas has been supplied to about 20 households adjacent to the plants through pipelines in Gaibandha which has been operational since 2012. In Bagerhat, a plant of Plug Flow technology, with the capacity of treating 1 ton of waste per day has been constructed which will be providing gas supply to 30 households. This was implemented with the funds from Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL). Practical Action has demonstrated value added use of biogas generated from municipal solid waste for various productive use such as to power irrigation pumps and threshing machines etc. 
  2. Informal Worker’s Business Cooperative: The situation of informal waste workers is often dire. While playing a critical role in reducing the amounts going to landfill and recyling materials they are often some of the most vulnerable workers in the economy suffering discrimination and being prevented from working effectively. They risk their health with few protections and earn an income which is barely enough for survival.

Practical Action has worked with informal workers form business cooperatives. As a result, workers have come together and gained a collective voice, improved their customer relations and the safety of their working practices. They have established formal linkages with the municipalities, and agreed a tariff system operating across the town of Faridpur.

  1. Research & Development (R&D): With the aim of developing and promoting various new technologies, Practical Action also carries out multiple projects in relation to R&D. Practical Action is undertaking action research to explore the use of disposable polythene. Thin single use, dirty plastic or polythene is being melted and mixed with stone chips for building paving blocks. Practical Action had the experience of piloting use of plastic for road construction and assess increased durability of the road infrastructure

Practical Action is in the process of setting up a plastic recycling plant at the Rohinga camps. Alphabetic blocks and toys will be made for the children out of recycled plastic.

A project has been recently undertaken in both northern and southern parts of the country for utilizing organic waste for turning into briquettes. In this project, some non-traditional organic matter, such as used papers together with rice husk, are being used for creating briquettes.

All these initiatives show promise, but there are remaining challenges in terms of encouraging private sector engagement and building strong, vibrant value chains which promote even greater separation at source, collection and recycling. Access to finance, appropriate technologies and business development services are key constraints to increase the productivity of informal sectors and SMEs who are involved in the business of waste collection and recycling. This needs to be supported with a strong regulatory environment to prevent indiscriminate dumping of waste, with better inter-ministerial co-operation.

Practical Action was delighted to use the occasion of World Habitat Day to highlight the great examples of what can be done, but also to recognise how much remains to be achieved. Systems must be created which not only deal effectively with growing volumes of waste, but do so in ways which recognise the contribution of, and improve the situation for the small army of informal workers that form the back-bone of all current recycling efforts.


Article by Hasin Jahan, Lucy Stevens, Iffat Khan, Mahobul Islam 
Photo Credits: Practical Action  (CC)