Dhaka’s organic waste into fertiliser

A small project to turn Dhaka’s organic waste into fertiliser is being feted across the world and is now earning millions of dollars for Bangladesh by reducing global warming .

Dhaka’s dumping ground at Matuail The dumping ground at Matuail is a like wasteland of Biblical proportions. It is the only dumping site for Dhaka, a city of 14 million inhabitants that produces 3200-3500 tonnes of garbage everyday. Mountains of garbage that rot and produce a toxic brew of greenhouse gases and bacteria lie amidst scavengers and garbage pickers, the only signs of life in this desolate landscape. The 52 acres of land, overflowing with hazardous waste is a testimony to Dhaka’s indifference to the health and well being of its citizens. Predictably, the site is about 90 per cent filled up and according to experts, this grotesque ‘garbage bin’ in Matuail will be filled to its limit in about a year’s time.

Undoubtedly, Matuail is a living hell for those who work there. Having to work in unplanned conditions and untreated wastes, the waste pickers are exposed to extremely harmful, unhealthy and deadly diseases and chemicals. In spite of being aware of it, the workers are bound to carry on because to them these deadly wastes mean money. But they are not the lone victims of the effects of waste dumping. For years, common city dwellers have been the eventual sufferers of the wretched waste management policy of the Dhaka City Corporation (DCC).

From the enormous amounts of waste produced everyday, only about 42 percent is collected by DCC and disposed off in open crude landfill sites. The rest are simply not taken care of. Garbage lying scattered on streets is a sight common to all. There are even ‘unofficial’ dumping grounds in certain areas of the city which the DCC never bothers to take notice of. The city is faced with severe environmental degradation and public-health risk due to these uncollected wastes that are dumped in open places. The dumping of these has led to three major environmental problems — transmission of diseases, green house gas emissions and pollution of ground water through leakages.

At least, this was the case before the two urban architects, Maqsood Sinha and Iftekhar Enyatullah, came into the picture. Over the past 10 years, their model to turn the tremendous amount of waste that Dhaka produces into an asset has revolutionised the waste management problems of the city. Today, these two innovative researchers are the directors of Waste Concern, an organisation they had founded 10 years back to help solve the problem of waste disposal. From a small non-governmental organisation, Waste Concern has expanded to become a world-renowned firm for waste disposal and treatment solutions.

Had these two BUET architects not met about a decade back, the initiative to form the organisation would probably not have come true. ‘I came to Dhaka and was gathering information for a research, when my professor asked me to meet someone who was doing a research on Waste Management Technology. That’s how we first met,’ remembers Sinha. ‘From that point, it was all about combining our ideas together and looking for innovative solutions to waste related problems. Eventually we came up with the concept of Waste Concern – an organisation that would approach the treatment of waste in a new way.’

‘Instead of looking at waste as a hazard, we looked at it as a resource and that’s exactly how we started,’ recalls Sinha. ‘We appointed waste collectors, most of whom had previously worked in horrible conditions. They go from door to door collecting garbage from about 1,000 households and hauling it by rickshaw vans, bring it all to our waste treatment plant. There they sort out any inorganic material before placing the organic trash into five brick bins. With little help from micro organisms, the natural climate here takes care of the rest, turning heaps of organic garbage into valuable products such as fertilizers,’ explains Iftekhar. ‘The food habits of Bangladeshi people make the waste a resource as most foods are fresh and not packaged. This means the waste is 80 percent organic and perfect for composting.’

‘At the beginning, it was difficult for us to motivate the people to work with waste and none was ready to give us a piece of land to set up our plant,’ recalls Sinha. ‘It was Lions Club that finally gave us a plot of land near the city for setting up the plant and we commenced work straight away.’

When this model was implemented in small slums and other colonies and proved to be successful, the two men decided to go for it in a large scale.

‘The plant produces 3 tonnes of bio fertiliser, which sells for about $0.04 per kilogram. The revenue is enough to make the operation self sustaining, covering production costs and providing well paying jobs to employees.’

Creating more job opportunities in the waste management sector has been one of the basic objectives of Waste Concern from the very beginning. Besides conducting research and experiments on waste treatment and organic farming, the organisation also trained waste pickers and employed them on a full time basis. The end result is the improved life of many waste pickers who now have the opportunity to work in better conditions and with a better monthly income.

From the very beginning, the model adapted by Waste Concern has been so successful, that the government has helped it replicate this concept in 14 cities across the countries. ‘By diverting 50,000 tons of waste a year from dumping, it produces 400 tons of organic fertilisers a year, which helps farmers across the country,’ explains Iftekhar. In Bangladesh, there were previously no alternatives to chemical fertilisers. The use of organic fertilisers for farming is now common in many rural areas and, according to the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), it has significantly boosted the annual output of crops in some areas.

Waste Concern and its operations have proven to be so effective that the governments of Sri Lanka and Vietnam have set up their own replications the organisation’s model of Community Based Solid Waste Management. Assisting these two countries with their waste disposal problems has been a major success for the two researchers. Moreover, South Africa has also taken up this model and is currently implementing it.

But this success is the fruition of years of struggle. ‘We faced various problems. Most banks were not willing to give us the initial loan to start off. Moreover, we did not receive the support from various bodies to put our plans into action.’ remembers Iftekhar. ‘Many people had negative notions towards what we were trying to do, but at the end of it all, we believed in what we were trying to do.’

What is today a breakthrough for Bangladesh is that these two founders of Waste Concern have shown that composting has even greater potential in the context of climate change. As the Kyoto protocol, an agreement made under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), comes into effect, countries that have ratified this protocol have to deliver on their commitments to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases, thus significantly decreasing the adverse effects of global warming. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows developed countries — who are the worst polluters and hence the biggest contributors to global warming — to achieve part of their reduction obligations through investment in projects in developing countries that reduce green house gas emissions or fix or sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. CDM allows energy efficient (or less GHG emitting) technology to be installed in the country’s waste management sector. As a result, least developed countries like Bangladesh can not only earn from reducing global warming but also invest in its own waste management solutions.

Already, Bangladesh has made excellent progress in the highly competitive market of CDM. Currently, there are 4 CDM projects that are under development. Supported by developed countries like the Netherlands, Canada and Japan, these projects aim to earn a significant amount of foreign currency as well as contribute to the energy sector of the country through the efficient treatment of waste. Two of these projects named ‘South North Project’ and ‘Composting of Organic Waste in Dhaka’ have already commenced. The Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies (BCAS), the SSN’s participating institution in Bangladesh, is in charge of the project supported by the government of Netherlands. Altogether, the different components of the project are expected to reduce about 15,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and earn a benefit of about $120,000 per year.

The second CDM project has been prepared by Waste Concern and the World Wide Recycling (WWR) of the Netherlands with support from the UNDP. This innovative project is now under implementation with an aim to reduce about 90,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year. ‘We aim to reduce about 1 million tons of greenhouse gas over a period of eight years,’ says Iftekhar while talking about the goals to be reached via the second CDM project in the country. He further mentioned that the most significant fact about this project is that it is the first composting project using CDM globally. The main view of the project is to convert the waste dumping facility in Matuail into a productive waste treatment plant by reduction of odour, ground water pollution, saving of municipal land and fire hazard.

‘We want to convert this dumpsite into 700 ton capacity composting and landfill gas recovery site, turning trash into fertiliser and emitted greenhouse gases into usable energy,’ explains Iftekhar. Besides the improvement task at Matuail, the project also includes two composting sub-projects based in Dhaka and Chittagong as well as a landfill gas recovery project in Chittagong. Moreover, Waste Concern is also preparing a baseline for poultry waste in Bangladesh. The project has also proven how foreign investment in developing countries can contribute to the improvement of global environment as World Wide Recycling has already agreed to finance the project at a cost of $10 million, in return for credit and percentage of gas production.

In the long run, Waste Concern aims to revolutionise the whole waste dumping scenario throughout the country. What once seemed impossible and began as a struggle, is now slowly transforming into reality and a bright future. The two pioneering researchers have not only earned local fame but also global recognition for their tremendous effort. Recently, the two men received the ‘Race Against Poverty Award’ from the United Nations in recognition of their contributions to recycling waste and providing training to hundreds of waste pickers. However, according to them, this is just the beginning of a long journey ahead to convert ‘trash into cash’(New Age Xtra, 28 September, 2006).

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