A recent survey by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) titled "Municipal Waste Management (MWM) Survey 2022' revealed that only 3.15 percent of the 80 lakh tonnes of solid waste the 342 municipalities produced in the 2020-2021 fiscal year were recycled.
The recycling rate was 3.04 percent in the fiscal year 2018-2019 and 3.05 percent in 2019-2020. It said 4.05 percent of 39 lakh tonnes waste were recycled in the six city corporation areas in fiscal year 2020-2021.
Nationwide, only 15.59 percent of the solid waste was recycled in 2020-2021. The municipalities, city corporations The rest of the waste went to landfill. According to BBS, 340 municipalities had 494 landfills in 2020-21.
The survey report pointed out that due to too few sanitary landfills, hazardous waste is ending up in non-sanitary landfills, increasing the chances of contamination, which can lead to severe health and environmental problems.
"Our solid waste management is entirely a mess right now. It is not designed to be comprehensive, scientific or inclusive. There has never been a proper planning or project taken to manage waste in this country. And the main problem here is the citizens do not participate in the process", Sharif Jamil, general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) said.
If you look at the best examples of waste management, you will find that the solid waste is segregated categorically from the moment they are treated as waste. For example, a plastic juice bottle is not a waste when you are drinking from it. The moment you are finished drinking it, that bottle is not a useful thing to you anymore, it is a waste now. There should be a separate bin for plastic where you can dump that bottle with other plastic wastes, not with miscellaneous wastes.
"This is missing here in Bangladesh. Because there are multiple categories of solid waste - plastic, paper, organic kitchen waste, hardboard, e-waste etc. The recycling process of each of these categories is completely different. Some require immediate composting, while some categories will need to be crushed or run through a recycling machine", Sharif explained.
"The solid waste management system has to be an inclusive one. Otherwise it is not going to be sustainable", he added.
In 2017, a research paper was published in The Journal of Developing Areas, titled 'Solid waste recycling: Sustainability issues in Dhaka city'. The survey emphasised on the contribution of the informal recycling sector of the cities.
The data was gathered through face-to-face interviews with 400 recyclers and scavengers in Dhaka city between the months of September and November 2015.
According to the research, males, females, and children of all ages, poor migrants and minorities are involved in the recovery of recyclables. Feriwalas often purchase recyclable items from households and shops. Scavengers recover recyclable items directly from waste and sell these recyclables to junk shop dealers or contractors, who resell these to recycling industries. Much of the recyclable material consists of paper, cardboard, scrap metal, plastics, PET bottles, dry breads, heels of shoes, and bones.
That is how the majority of the recycling system developed. The findings of this study imply that promoting organised and systematic waste management activities, planned, monitored, and supported waste-picking activities can be a viable option for reducing poverty among the urban poor.
The German experience
In the 1990s, the use of refillable glass bottles dropped to 72% and single use plastic bottles became popular in Germany. The German municipalities now had to deal with a huge amount of waste, which led the country's authorities to introduce legislation for waste management. They came up with an innovative waste collection model in which citizens played a key part.
The German recycling system uses six different bins of different colours. The colour system tells users what kind of waste they can put into each of them.
The yellow is for plastic, the blue for paper and cardboard, the white for clear glass, the brown for coloured glass, the green for green glass and a sixth bin for food waste and organic matter.
This led the German citizens to become conscious of the waste they were producing, because they had to separate their waste with great care. They cannot put batteries, light bulbs and fluorescent tubes in any of these bins, because these are hazardous products and must be taken to special recycling points.
Although these many requirements are supposed to discourage users, the involvement of citizens has been key to the effectiveness of the system.
There are bottle recycling systems on the streets of the country known as the Pfand system. When a citizen buys any bottled drink, s/he pays a small extra cost, which ranges between eight to twenty euro cents, in the form of a deposit. This deposit is refunded once users return the empty bottles to the food store or automated machines, which are designed to accept and compress these bottles.
If a citizen feels it is not worth the effort of recycling to recover this money, s/he can leave the bottles in the containers that the authorities have placed in the busiest areas of the city. The more vulnerable members of society can pick those bottles to obtain a small sum of money by recycling the bottles.
Here in Bangladesh we have the concept of 'tokai' or scavengers who collect the scattered bottles and plastic waste that we throw on the street. This might look similar to the Pfand system of Germany.
"No, those are not similar. Because when we throw any solid waste unconsciously and irresponsibly, it doesn't stay where we throw it. The waste travels through the streets, to the rivers and waterbodies. And most importantly, it goes unnoticed. Before it reaches a landfill, it fills our water bodies", Sharif Jamil said.
We need smart waste management
Zero Waste Cities (#ZeroWasteCities) is a European programme designed to boost and assist cities and communities in achieving zero waste generation. The Zero Waste Cities certification is promoted by Zero Waste Europe and forms part of the EU LIFE Programme.
Among the candidates to the certification in Europe are cities that include Munich (Germany) and Barcelona (Spain). Barcelona, with a population of 1.62 million, has decided to implement its waste free policy with goals like achieving 67 percent success in appropriate household waste separation (the average in Europe is 48%), and reducing waste production per capita to below 427 kg by 2027. In 2020, this figure stood at around 498 kg, after reaching its maximum figure in 2007 with 562 kg per year.
The programme and the certification are aimed at changing the traditional waste management approach of cities. To do so, they have drawn up a master plan to guide the actions of cities in a common strategy. It positions waste management in a hierarchy of best use, which focuses on eight action categories: Refuse, rethink and redesign; Reduce and reuse; Prepare for reuse; Recycling, composting, anaerobic digestion; Material and chemical recovery; Residuals management and Unacceptable (options that do not allow for recovery and have a high environmental impact).
According to the MSM 2022 report, in the municipalities in Bangladesh, people generate 182 kg of solid waste every year, and in the city corporations, the amount is 172.28 kg. But do we take responsibility for the waste that we are producing?
"Ideally, it is the waste producer that needs to take responsibility, either s/he will recycle or reuse the waste, or s/he will compensate for the process. There is a concept being discussed worldwide 'Polluters Pay Principle', which if applied, will make people more aware of the waste they produce", Sharif Jamil said.
Waste management experts emphasise on the word 're-think' for both producers and consumers. Source reduction methods involve changes in manufacturing technology, raw material inputs and product formulation, for commercial producers. While as consumers we can think about what we are buying, if we can do without buying that, or what we are throwing away.
It is time we take responsibility for our waste.