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Garbage turns into gold in Bangladesh

Organic waste becomes salable compost – and millions in carbon credits.

By Lisa SchroederContributor of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 2009

Residents of the Vasantek slum near Dhaka, Bangladesh, put food waste into large metal barrels.

Lisa Schroeder

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Dhaka, Bangladesh

Maqsood Sinha and Iftekhar Enayetullah like to talk trash, but that’s be­­cause they’re pioneers in Bang­ladesh’s organic-waste recycling. They are the founders and directors of Waste Concern. Since 1995, this NGO has reduced the amount of urban garbage produced here, created jobs and healthier living environments for poor residents, provided for more-sustainable farming, and cut down on greenhouse-gas emissions.

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Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest and most populous nations. Its 150 million people live in an area the size of Iowa and have an average per capita income of about $600 per year, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. Because it lacks space for landfills, trash disposal is a major concern.

Every day 3,500 tons of garbage is produced in Dhaka, says Mr. Sinha, a tall formidable man sitting in a conference room at their offices in Dhaka lined with numerous awards. Almost half of the city’s trash goes uncollected, Sinha adds. Dhaka simply does not have the resources to gather and dispose of all that waste. Most of it is left on the streets or in open trash sites.

But 80 percent of the waste is organic – food waste, such as vegetable and fruit peels, meat scraps, and spoiled fish.

That’s where Sinha, an architect and urban planner, and Mr. Ena­­ye­­tullah, a civil engineer and urban planner, stepped in. After earning degrees abroad, they came back to turn organic trash into a profitable resource: compost.

First they concentrated on the areas most urgently affected by uncollected garbage – Dha­ka’s slums. More than one-third of the city’s estimated 11 million people live in slums with no running water or sanitation, let alone trash disposal.

Here, Waste Concern de­­veloped community-based composting (CBC), in which residents put their food scraps into big composting barrels. The chest-high metal barrels sit on concrete bases and can hold up to 400 pounds of waste. Specially drilled holes encourage aerobic decomposition. The barrels are shared among three to seven families, and each family is held accountable for the barrel’s contents. They also share in the profits: 7 taka per kilogram (about 5 cents per pound).

CBC is successful, its founders say. Sinha notes that the program is being replicated in 26 other cities in Bangladesh as well as in other developing nations.
“We selected the Waste Concern model as the best and tested it in Quy Nhon, Vietnam, and Matale, Sri Lanka,” says Adnan Hameed Aliani, of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. “Both projects are working well.”

Bangladeshi NGO Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK; it means Social Welfare Organization) introduced barrel composting to Vasantek, Dhaka’s biggest slum, more than a year ago. Refugees from Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan established the slum in 1974, and now an estimated 20,000 live within its 1.25 square miles. Tidy corrugated-iron shacks line winding paths here, and dotted throughout are 328 blue composting barrels shared by 1,700 families.

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