Garbage turns into gold in Bangladesh

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

By , Contributor of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

Barrel composting is extremely simple. People like Momtaz Begum simply sweep up their waste and dump it into the barrel. There is no need to do anything else, the design takes care of all composting needs. “I’m very satisfied with the barrel-composting system,” she says. “Now it’s more clean and we’re safer from waste-borne diseases.”

After three to four months, the waste is collected and allowed to mature in a large shed for 10 to 15 days before it’s ready to be sold to local farmers.

Muhammad Babul Hossain, one of the slum’s three compost collectors, didn’t have a job before the barrel program began, but now he’s one of the slum’s high-income earners at 4,000 taka ($58) per month.

Organic compost costs less than chemical fertilizer, and it has other benefits. It enriches the soil rather then depleting it the way chemical fertilizers can do. It sustains the farmland, proponents claim, “not only for this year, but for the years ahead,” says Zakir Hossain of research institute Krisoker Saar (Farmers’ Voice).

DSK hopes to expand the program to the entire slum. They’re aiming for 500 barrels that will be given to the community.

After perfecting the community-based composting model, Waste Concern turned its attention to the many tons of organic waste generated by Dhaka’s business sector, notably its many produce markets. WC took advantage of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to create the world’s first carbon-trading scheme based on compost.

Last November it launched this new project at its Bulta plant, which lies next to farmland and brick factories a couple of hours northeast of Dhaka.
Initially, this new project collected only 10 tons of organic waste daily from the Karwan Bazar market, but it should reach 100 tons later this month, says deputy plant manager Syed “Jubilee” Ahmed.

After the waste is trucked in, it is spread out in open-air bins, monitored carefully, and becomes saleable compost in a little over a month.

Two other CDM composting plants are planned to open this year to handle a combined 700 tons of organic waste per day, says Sinha.

That works out to 233 tons of finished, dry compost every day with a retail value of nearly $14,000. Composting works well in a nation like Bangladesh because of the tropical climate and high percentage of organic waste in the trash stream.

Organic waste buried in a landfill can generate greenhouse gases, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. But when the organic waste is composted in the open air, these gases are not made. The fact of this negative generation amounts to carbon credits, which can be traded on overseas markets for $20 per ton.

“From one ton of organic waste,” says Sinha. “You can reduce half a ton of greenhouse gas.” When it reaches full capacity, this CDM project will reduce CO2 emissions by 127,750 tons per year. The carbon credits will be worth $2.5 million.

“Waste Concern is doing a commendable job,” says Quamrul Islam Chowdhury, chairman of Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh. “It is really important to translate those wastes into resources because that will help the country achieve sustainable development in the years ahead.”

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