Trash is cash in Bangladesh

An innovative project turns waste into fertilizer, helping clean the streets and the air.

To stand at the Matuail solid-waste dumpsite just outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, is to witness waste management gone awry. Sprawling mountains of garbage rot on 52 acres of land, producing a toxic brew of greenhouse gases and bacteria. The site, the only one for this city of 10 million, is 90 percent full.

Making matters worse, the waste here represents less than 40 percent of the 3,200 tons produced each day, since the municipality lacks the funds and manpower to collect it all. The rest is left in the streets and already-strained sewers.

But A.H. Md. Maqsood Sinha and Iftekhar Enayetullah, founders of the innovative nongovernmental organization Waste Concern, have shown that, with a simple technology, all this trash can not only be managed, but turned into a profitable resource.

At the Green Road Government Colony in downtown Dhaka, five Waste Concern employees go door to door collecting refuse from 800 households, hauling it by rickshaw vans to a nearby shed. There they sort out any inorganic material before placing the trash into five brick bins. With a little help from microorganisms, the natural climate here takes care of the rest, turning the heaps of rotting garbage into a valuable product: biofertilizer.

Each month, the plant produces 3 tons of bio-fertilizer, 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. [Editor's note: The original version overstated the amount and value of bio-fertilizer.]

The idea, the first of its kind in Bangladesh, makes use of a hidden benefit of the waste itself: "Bangladesh's food habits help make waste a resource," explains Sinha, an architect and urban planner. "Most food is fresh and not packaged, meaning the waste is 80 percent organic" - perfect for composting.

Today, the model has proven so successful that the government has helped Waste Concern replicate it in 14 cities across the country, bringing waste services to 100,000 people, 30,000 of whom live in slums. By diverting more than 50,000 tons of waste a year from dumping, their efforts also produce 400 tons of organic fertilizer a year, which farmers across the country are increasingly demanding because the soil is exhausted from overuse of chemical fertilizers.

Sinha and Enayetullah say their innovation holds significant promise for other developing countries. Already the governments of Sri Lanka and Vietnam have set up their own replications of the model, and South Africa has expressed interest.

Building on their success, the two founders now hope to show that composting has even greater potential with the Kyoto Protocol. They want to transform the Matuail dumpsite into a 700-ton capacity composting and landfill gas recovery site, turning trash into fertilizer and greenhouse gases into usable energy.

What makes the project novel is that it will be financed through the new Clean Development Mechanism, a Kyoto Protocol initiative that allows industrialized countries to finance projects in developing countries and receive credit toward their own emission reduction targets.

A Dutch company, World Wide Recycling, has agreed to finance the project at a cost of $10 million, in return for credits and a percentage of the gas production. The project now awaits municipal approval.

Experts warn that dumps like Matuail account for up to 30 percent of a country's emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. But Waste Concern's plan "will reduce about 1 million tons of greenhouse gas over an eight year period," says Enayetullah.

"This sort of project is really a win-win situation for Bangladesh and many other countries, because ... you can earn foreign exchange, get your investment here in Bangladesh, and at the same time you resolve your waste management problem," says Md. Mujibur Rahman, a professor at Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of Rahman's university.]

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