On a visit to the Matuail landfill, Zareen Tasneem Sharif, then a mere undergraduate student from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), was dejected from witnessing the deplorable condition of the region, its surrounding water bodies, and – most importantly – the inhabitants of the region.
Unsurprisingly, Zareen's undergraduate thesis focused on rejuvenating the landfill through industrial recycling, revitalising the surrounding waterways and making the region habitable for its people. Zareen later submitted her thesis to the Global Undergraduate Awards and to her utmost surprise, she became the Global Winner earlier this month, an award often dubbed the 'Junior Nobel Prize.'
Zareen became the 'Global Winner 2022' for her undergraduate thesis titled 'Waste in the City: Agglomerating Local Economy of Matuail Landfill' in the Architecture and Design category of the competition.
"The feeling was overwhelming and unbelievable. I could not believe it when I received the call. I am so happy to present my work on such a grand platform," said Zareen.
The Global Undergraduate Awards accepts submissions, typically undergraduate theses, in 25 disciplines through a completely anonymous submission process.
The UA programme is split into seven regions: Africa and the Middle East, Asia, Europe, the Island of Ireland, Latin America, Oceania, the US and Canada. The entrants are recognised on three levels: Highly Commended Entrants, Regional Winner and Global Winner.
This year's UA received 2,812 submissions by undergraduates from 73 different countries, which a group of professional academics later reviewed.
Bangladeshi undergrads have won the award for 'Highly Commended Entrants' and 'Regional Winner' in the past, but Zareen is the first to be crowned as one of the global winners.
Zareen is currently working on other research projects on the waste management system of Dhaka. She is also an In-House Architect at the MGH Group. Before completing her undergraduate degree, she completed her SSC and HSC from Motijheel Ideal School and Holy Cross College, respectively.
The proposed solution for the Matuail landfill
From the get-go, Zareen began discussing her plan to rescue and revitalise the Matuail landfill.
"Most people in our country think that landfill is a place where you simply dispose of your wastes and that's it. But that's not necessarily the case," Zareen said.
The inhabitants of the Matuail landfill were farmers. They used to farm in the fields and catch fish from the surrounding water bodies. But when Matuail became a landfill a lot of them left the area. Those who could not leave had to reinvent themselves to simply survive.
"Some of them became waste collectors, while others opened up small recycling mills. Unfortunately, they became outcasts from society, people did not want to associate with those dealing with waste all day," said Zareen.
"On top of that, the Matuail landfill has been exploited beyond its capacity and we are still dumping more waste into the region," she added.
Zareen realised that there needed to be a well-thought-out recycling plan to rescue Matuail. The end goal was to restore the region to its former glory and allow the inhabitants to go back to their old ways of life.
In consultation with her supervisors Dr Nasreen Hossain Nupur, Dr Apurba K Podder and Patrick D'Rozario, she developed a three-phase plan to transform the Matuail landfill into a vibrant recycling hub.
The initial phase would require rescuing and connecting the surrounding water bodies in the Matuail region, developing access roads to the landfill and eventually setting up a waste management facility in the region. The waste management facility would have the capacity to treat or recycle 150 tonnes per hour or 1,000 tonnes per day.
The second phase will have to make sure that at least 40% of the total waste was being treated or recycled, and that a supporting recycling hub is established in the region.
The final phase of the project, which needs to be completed by 2043, aims to convert 7.03 million tonnes of waste into recyclable raw materials, compost for the agricultural hub and refuse-derived fuel (RDF) by that point. According to her study, the integrated economic system would bring about a 30% return on the initial investment. Finally, an urban agricultural hub would be established to restore and promote the lost agricultural practices of the people of Matuail.
Zareen hopes that her project will aid the government in rescuing the Matuail region from further degradation.
"Given the exposure of the project, I hope the government and relevant authorities will take some notes out of my project, and I will be able to contribute somehow to rejuvenate the Matuail region," said Zareen.
A vibrant support system
Zareen said that she always wanted to become an architect. "I used to like beautiful spaces, and homes since I was little. I was mesmerised by the vastness of the field of architecture, which inspired me to become an architect," said Zareen.
She was thankful for a strong support system from her parents and her thesis supervisors, which helped her come this far.
"My parents were always extremely supportive of my aspirations to become an architect. They did not limit my movement because I was a girl. It was okay for me to come home late, I could stay late for group work and assignments. They are my greatest source of inspiration."
Zareen believed that the alumni from her department greatly helped her in realising her dreams, from studying architecture to submitting her paper to the UA.
"My department senior Pankaj Nath Joy bhaiya from the twelfth batch previously became the regional winner at the Global Undergraduate Awards. He inspired me to submit my thesis to the competition. I also got good reviews on my thesis from other competitions which motivated me to submit it to the UA," said Zareen.
"I would like to mention my mentor Ar. Rizvi Hassan Bhai has been a great support system throughout my undergrad life, he is an inspiration to all the young architects in Bangladesh," she added.
Finally, she thanked her thesis supervisors for their valuable guidance and encouragement.
"Their contribution is very special. They guided me through the initial phases of my thesis. They advised me on how I should present it in front of the jury and how to best present it. Without their encouragement and guidance, I would not be able to come this far."
In terms of future endeavours, Zareen wants to remain involved in academia and research. She wants to pursue her Master's as soon as she acquires a little bit of professional experience. She believes that hard work and perseverance are crucial to achieving one's goals.
"To the younger generation, I would say there is no shortcut to success. Keep working hard and don't give up," said Zareen.