Turning waste into compost helps solve Dhaka’s garbage problem, creates jobs, earns carbon credits

An award-winning Bangladeshi organization that has been turning Dhaka’s organic waste into compost since 1995, has created the world’s first composting plant that will earn millions of dollars in carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. The project will produce 50,000 tons of compost a year while recycling 700 tons of organic waste every day and creating 800 jobs for the urban poor in the Bangladeshi capital, one of the world's most densely populated cities.

WWR Bio Fertilizer Bangladesh Ltd., a joint venture company of Waste Concern in association with its Dutch partners, set up the plant in Bulta on November 25, 2008, and plans to have two more plants in the city within 2009. Vegetable waste from markets is collected using the project's own transport networks, and taken to a compost plant built on land owned by the project. An agreement has been signed with the Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) to collect wastes from the DCC area.

It is the latest step in a project that has been helping Dhaka deal with its garbage since 1995, when urban planners Abu Hasnat M Maqsood Sinha, an architect, and Iftekhar Enayetullah, a civil engineer, created Waste Concern as an NGO to promote the idea that “waste is a resource”. Every day, Dhaka’s 11 million people produce around 3,500 tons of solid waste, 80% of it organic waste suitable for composting. Half that garbage cannot be collected by the understaffed and cash-strapped DCC and, before Waste Concern began work, was left to rot.

But seeing garbage as an opportunity, rather than a problem, was not a vision that came easily to many people at first. They began in the slums, home to more than one third of the city’s residents, developing community-based composting, in which residents put their food scraps into composting barrels shared by three to seven families that can hold up to 400 pounds. The families share in the profits, earning 7 taka per kilogram (about 5 cents per pound).

"In the beginning, it was difficult for us to motivate the people to work with waste and no one was ready to give us a piece of land to set up our plant," Sinha said. Then the Lions Club gave them land, and UNDP provided assistance to help build Dhaka’s first organic waste-processing centre. Former waste pickers used small bicycle-driven collection carts to collect organic garbage like kitchen scraps from local householders. Using simple technology that Enayetullah discovered in Indonesia, they transformed the waste into compost over a 55-day period at the community-processing centre. This organic compost was the first alternative to chemical fertilizers available in the local market, and now Bangladesh's largest fertilizer distributor buys the product and sells it to farmers.

By 1998, with support from the government and from UNDP, Waste Concern had created similar systems four other poor communities around the capital, and in 2000, with UNICEF’s support, the Bangladesh government decided to replicate the model in 14 cities. Now it is used in 26 cities, and the Waste Concern Group, a social business including both “for profit” and “not for profit” enterprises, is helping Vietnam and Sri Lanka adopt the model.

In 2002, the two men won the UN’s Race Against Poverty Award for their work in improving the incomes of Dhaka’s poor urban communities while also dramatically improving the city’s sanitary conditions, and in October 2003, were chosen as environmental laureates by the prestigious Tech Museum Awards, developed to recognize the need to bridge existing technology in emerging countries and emerging technologies in developed countries

The new 12-million Euro project will reduce significantly reduce tax dollars spent on waste management, reduce environmental pollution, create jobs for the urban poor, reduce greenhouse gases, and improve soil conditions in Bangladesh. Organic waste that is composted in the open air, rather than being buried in a landfill site, does not generate greenhouse gases and thus creates 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, the project will reduce CO2 emissions by 127,750 tons per year, worth $2.5 million in carbon credits.

Project partners are Waste Concern of Bangladesh and World Wide Recycling B.V., FMO Bank, and Tridos Bank from the Netherlands. The plant at Bulta is partially financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs through its executive agency EVD, in the frame work of The Netherlands Programme for Cooperation with Emerging Markets.

This story was compiled from information on the Waste Concern website, including the United Nations "Race Against Poverty Award" 2002, and Garbage turns into gold in Bangladesh, by Lisa Schroeder, Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 2009. For a case study of Chak Singa village, which became self-sufficient with its own compost supply, see here. The pictures come from the Photo Gallery on the Waste Concern website.