Under the presidency of the United Kingdom, the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) of UNFCCC has recently taken place from 31 October to 12 November 2021 in Glasgow. This climate change conference was a significant, consequential and most timely event. It aimed to showcase the progressive coalitions as well as the gaps and challenges emerged for the actions on climate change, implementing the Paris Agreement (COP 21). Among diverse and manifold climate change stressors exposed at COP 26, "chemicals and wastes crises" was highlighted as one of the major topics, as it poses severe risks to the environment and humans.
With expanding population and amplifying economy, more waste is generated contributing to waste management crisis and leading to greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 2018 report by the World Bank on solid waste management, the worlds' cities generated 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste in 2016, amounting to a footprint of 0.74 kg per person per day. Moreover, waste incineration generates methane gas, which is 24 times more potent in global warming terms than carbon dioxide (CO2). With the present rate of population growth and urbanisation, annual waste generation is expected to increase by 70% from 2016 levels to 3.40 billion tonnes in 2050.
Bangladesh, a country of nearly 165 million people, is no different to this disastrous phenomenon. Cities here have been generating large volume of solid wastes than the villages due to rapid advancement of urbanisation and industrialisation. A study shows that, the capital Dhaka alone, generates approximately 4,124 tons per day, of which almost 40% goes uncollected. Furthermore, The Financial Express reported, by 2025 the urban solid waste generation of Bangladesh is projected to be 47 thousand tons in each day.
Plastic waste adds a whole different layer of horror to this havoc. Even during the Covid pandemic plastics production calculated 367 million metric tons in 2020 compared to 270 million metric tons in 2010. Preferable options like versatile applicability, easily carriageable, lightweight and low cost has made plastic attractive for its applications ranging from food packaging to electrical industries. Plastic is not biodegradable, and half of the total plastic waste is single-used, produced by harmful chemicals derived from oil, gas and coal, which are hazardous to both human health and environment. Among the total annually produced plastics, 25 percent is incinerated, 20 percent recycled and the rest 55 percent are directly released in the environment, ending up in rivers and seas that destroys biodiversity of both water and land, blocking the drains and leading to breeding of Aedes mosquito and vector-borne diseases like malaria. A study of UNEP suggests that if current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050. Moreover, 1 in 3 people globally do not have access to a waste management service (wasteaid). Therefore, effective-efficient management of waste is crucial so as to ensure ecosystem conservation and to mitigate health and hygiene risks of human health, particularly for the waste workers, who are directly engaged with discarded materials. The urgency to address plastic pollution efficiently is critical in order to ensure green and sustainable growth, to meet the development agenda of COP26.
Bangladesh ranked 10th in terms of mismanaged plastic waste in the world. The experts suggest, plastic waste has gone up from 178 tons per day in 2005 to 646 tons per day in 2020 in Dhaka city alone. There is a lack of formal recycling activities by the government, resulting unorganised informal sectors. Around 120,000 people work as waste collectors in Dhaka, forced in this profession due to lack of access to other economic opportunities and extreme poverty. They recycle about 15% of the total generated waste, working in extremely unhygienic and hazardous conditions, and often not aware of the consequences. Basic livelihood standards and healthy living conditions of waste pickers are severely compromised in this informal supply chain.
Given the present conditions and projected scenarios, it is essential to take initiatives to safeguard the wellbeing of waste workers through improving healthy living and livelihoods. The following measures, among many, should be addressed in order to ensure eco-friendly recycling of plastic wastes and for the wellbeing of the waste collectors:
- Establishing a partnership with stakeholders associated with waste management-the community level organisation, local waste recycling entrepreneurs, private companies and local city authorities;
- Advocacy and awareness building initiatives on healthcare and hygiene issues (such as safe waste handling, Covid awareness, dengue spreading and nutrition), fire safety, violence against women, road-crossing, literacy, etc;
- Special interventions for infrastructure constructions related to WASH and housing, especially considering children, women and people with disability;
- Establishing a technology-supported knowledge management and data-driven decision-making policy advocacy;
- Creating scope for basic literacy and numeracy of the waste workers' children;
- Introducing reward-based waste collection;
- Raising awareness and encouragement measures for households to convert food waste into organic fertiliser through proper waste management;
- Establishing protocols in landfills to reduce the volume of methane gas and recycle into fuel gas for sustainable environment;
- Encouraging plastic recycling industry to provide subsidy;
- Encouraging researches on wastes to promote eco-friendly waste recycling approaches;
- Effectively implementing existing laws and policies related to plastic and waste management;
- Ensuring loan services, health insurance and day-care services for the betterment of waste collectors.
In this backdrop, as the pioneer in empowering marginal communities, BRAC aims to bridge between the informal and formal actors. BRAC Urban Development Programme in collaboration with the Coca-Cola Foundation has taken an initiative to implement the project titled "The Pilot on Improving the Wellbeing of Waste-Workers in Dhaka City". The project offers a tailored service package for 3,500 participants of the 13 waste workers communities located in Dhaka, with a determined ambition to achieve the proposed measures.
There is still huge gap as well as scope to explore and experiment with the local and international interventions in place, to ensure better and safe lives of waste workers and sustainable solutions. BRAC envisions to rightly utilise this scope and space for improvement and innovation.
Dr Md Liakath Ali is the director of the climate change programme at BRAC and BRAC International, and the urban development programme at BRAC