Bindu Das, a 33-year-old sweeper, has been working for the Narayanganj City Corporation for more than five years. In the past, he used to dump flexible and single-use plastic, such as polythene bags, in dustbins, like he did for any other useless waste.
But now he does things differently.
When he sweeps the streets and collects plastic waste, he keeps it in a separate sack. And later, he sells it at designated points in the city area and earns money. Every week, he earns an extra Tk100 to Tk150 only by selling plastic waste like polythene bags.
"Polythene bags are very light. Every week I can collect 2 to 3 kilograms of the bags," said Bindu Das, standing by his waste collection van in the Don Chamber area in Narayanganj recently.
Bindu Das is one of the 395 street cleaners and waste pickers from government and private sector who now have a market to sell single-use plastic and earn extra money, alongside their regular salaries. The environment is now also much cleaner as a result of this initiative.
Multinational consumer goods company Unilever Bangladesh Limited, development partner United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Narayanganj City Corporation jointly took up a pilot project 'Plastic Waste Management: Building Circular Cities' to build an interlinked ecosystem of plastic collection.
The aim is to create a circular economy model for plastic waste, focusing mainly on single-use plastics (SUP) and flexible packaging. Narayanganj's major problem is that 40-50% of the total plastic used is single-use plastic. Currently, the project is managing 30% of total SUP of 12 tonnes daily, according to PwC baseline data on plastic value chain.
Plastic waste poses a serious threat to the environment as well as to the society, and overtime, its use has increased drastically. According to research, in 2005, the per person average consumption was 3 kilograms of plastic waste. Over the last 15 years, the consumption of plastic has increased three times, and the amount of recycling has come down. As a result, every year, the amount of plastic waste is increasing.
According to the World Bank, in Bangladesh, only 30 per cent of plastic waste is collected. Of them, only 37 per cent is recycled.
The mechanics of the pilot project
Plastic waste is now being collected from 27 wards in Narayanganj and a total 365 waste collectors have been trained to segregate plastic waste during collection. Under the project, around 274 tonnes of single-use plastic and flexible plastic waste from households and the environment were collected this year.
During 2021, a total of three different models have been tested to collect plastic waste from NCC. For example, under the Waste Picker Model, waste pickers, who work under private companies, collect plastic waste from city households separately.
Under Street Cleaner Model, the city corporation appointed street cleaners to collect single-use plastic and flexible packaging that are found in the NCC streets. While the third 'Feriwala Model', informal scrap collectors collect different kinds of recyclable and reusable materials from households, landfills and other sources.
Beside the city corporation's cleaners, waste pickers from private companies, bracketed under Cleaning Service Organisation (CSO), have also found a place to sell single-use plastic waste.
Shahabur Mia, a waste picker under a CSO named Aid Bangla, collects waste from door to door every morning. Though he has been collecting waste for the last seven years, only recently has he started to separate polythene bags to sell them in the collection centres under the project.
"I collect waste from around 200 households and can collect 30 to 40 kilograms of polythene every day. I sell polythene and can earn an extra Tk300 per day selling the polythene. When there are two people with the waste van, they split the money," said Shahabur Mia.
Waste collectors have been selling their polythene bags to the four collection centres operated by Eco-Social Development Organisation (ESDO) for the last seven months under the project. Abdul Halim, a storekeeper at Khanpur Main Road area said that he is buying 100 kilograms of single-use plastic bags every day.
"City corporation's cleaners and waste pickers come to sell the polythene to the collection point," said Abdul Halim. The officials of ESDO later send the waste to the Alaminnagar area where a storage facility has been set up to sort and dry the polyethene bags and other flexible plastic wastes as a further value addition under the project and finally sell them to the recyclers.
However, the piloting of the project was not that easy. Though the project started in January last year, the project faced setbacks due to the Covid-19 pandemic. And only after the virus came under control did the project activities gain momentum.
A trio of collaborators and why Narayanganj is good for the pilot project
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Van, Deputy Resident Representative, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Bangladesh said that plastic waste management is not only about collecting the plastic.
"It is about changing their mindset and behaviour. The change must start in the household, from the family," said Nguyen Thi Ngoc Van. "We have done a lot of awareness campaigns and a lot of communication so that people can start segregating plastic starting from the household."
She said that they are still facing challenges, but they are getting better every day. "Narayanganj is a good town as a model for us because of the high population density and a greater scope of work. This is a pilot project we hope that we will be able to replicate in other parts of the country," said Nguyen Thi Ngoc Van, adding "one day Narayanganj will be free of plastic."
British High Commissioner to Bangladesh Robert Chatterton Dickson visited the project in Narayanganj recently. He said that plastic pollution is a serious problem around the world. The problem is more serious in Bangladesh because the country is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and per head use of polythene is on the rise.
"I think we have seen here a really interesting partnership between Narayanganj City Corporation under the leadership of [Mayor] Ivy and Unilever, under the leadership of Zaved Akhtar and UNDP as a source of catalysing force," said Dickson.
"I think what it [the project] shows is how you will have that catalytic effect working with the local community who really wants to make a difference," Dickson added. Because when the local government, development partners and the community come together, it can make a substantial impact, he added.
The problem polythene represents is broad and widespread. Plastic means clogging and waterlogging posing a serious environmental problem, according to Dickson.
"So, it is very encouraging. I see a lot more to be done to make this fully, economically effective self-sustaining process," said Dickson, adding "but I think it is a good start and lots of lessons have been learned from what is going on in Narayanganj."
He said that the UK has an ongoing development relationship with Bangladesh, and climate and environment will be a big part of it. And solid waste management remains a prevalent problem everywhere, including Bangladesh.
"So, no doubt that we will be involved in works like this in Bangladesh in future," said British High Commissioner to Bangladesh Robert Chatterton Dickson.
Unilever Bangladesh Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director Zaved Akhtar said that this is the first time any multinational company took such initiative to reduce the impact of single-use plastics. "Plastic is a blessing in our civilization because it has made our life easy but plastic management has become a challenge, as a result, it has turned into a problem," said Zaved Akhtar.
"It is not Unilever's sole task, we all will have to do it. Unilever has initiated the project because someone has to take the responsibility," said Akhtar, adding however, "it is such a big problem that it is not possible for one company to solve it. We want to take everyone to the same platform to solve the problem," said Akhtar.
"If the business is not environmentally-friendly, the business will not sustain. It is a part of our business to safeguard the environment," Akhtar added. He said that Unilever had to make a big upfront investment to initiate the project and it will make more investments in this regard.
"We are at the beginning of the process, we will not say it is a success [yet]. We will say that we have just started the journey; we are learning, we will have to bring more investment to make it sustainable," said Akhtar.
He believes that other businesses should come forward to reduce plastic pollution and protect the environment.
Narayanganj City Corporation's mayor Selina Hayat Ivy thanked Unilever and UNDP for taking such an initiative to protect the environment from pollution. The mayor said that she started the segregation of plastic waste in 2007. But she could not make it sustainable because the city corporation was suffering from different problems, including a lack of funding.
"Narayanganj does not have a secondary transfer station like Dhaka, as a result, the cleaners have to make a long journey to the landfill to dump the waste," she said.
53-year-old Sultana Razia, one of the residents in the Don Chamber area, is happy with the initiative of collecting plastic waste in the area and said that the area is now cleaner than before. "The streets look great nowadays because the amount of polythene has decreased to a great extent in my area," stated Sultana Razia.
The plastic waste pollution is a pressing environmental challenge for Bangladesh. But through collaboration between the government, businesses, non-profits and the consumers, a cleaner and greener Bangladesh is on the horizon.