From trash to treasure: Microenterprises lead the way for recycling in Bangladesh

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Plastic tile production in Bangladesh. Plastic tile production in Bangladesh. Source: Alal Ahmed / PKSF

In the last five decades, the world has seen a sharp increase in plastic use. Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean. Along with the rapid economic growth and urbanization in Bangladesh, the country witnessed a significant increase in plastic use. The World Bank’s latest Country Environmental Analysis (CEA) report finds that each person in Dhaka generates 22.5 kilograms of plastic waste annually. A large part of this waste is dumped in water bodies and rivers.

Plastic pollution not only causes air, water and soil contamination but also public health risks like the recent dengue outbreak through the clogging of drainage, and microplastic contamination in the food chain. In Bangladesh, addressing plastic pollution is as much an environmental urgency as a development and economic priority.

I am inspired to see that small business owners and micro-entrepreneurs like Popy, Nazir and Jashim are leading the way to recycle and reuse plastic. These #RecyclingHeroes are playing an important part to reduce plastic pollution in the country.

In Bangladesh, the plastic recycling industry consists mainly of small, informal businesses with very limited legal recognition and government oversight. They suffer from low collection rates and the informal nature of the recycling sector. In 2018, among the 3,000 plastics recycling facilities, only 200 were registered. The industry also experiences land and space constraints though the government is tackling the issue with initiatives such as the BSCIC Chemical Industrial Park aiming to relocate these clusters to the outskirts of Dhaka to provide better infrastructure.

Recycling centers in Old Dhaka

The recycling rate for plastics in Dhaka is 37 percent. Around 5,400 workers are engaged with plastic recycling sector. But they often are exposed to health and safety risks in absence of proper protocols. On the other hand, manual sorting and outdated technologies hinder the quality of recycled materials.

Despite the challenges, many micro-entrepreneurs could be changemakers. Poly Akhtar, a female entrepreneur, is one of them. She runs her own plastic recycling factory in Dhaka with four machines. Her factory makes and sells products made from recycled plastic, a true win-win for the environment and the economy.

She received training on environmentally friendly production processes, personal and environmental safety from the World Bank-financed Sustainable Enterprises Project (SEP), which helps microenterprises manufacturing and agribusiness sectors adopt cleaner technologies. She also received financial assistance from SEP to create a safe, productive workspace for her 25 employees.

A plastic recycling facility in Dhaka Plastic recycling facility in Dhaka. Source: Alal Ahmed / PKSF

Md Jashim Uddin is another shining example who integrated a sustainable approach to footwear within his recycling facility. His shoe factory is one among the over 10,000 small and large shoe factories in the shoe cluster of Bhairab and Kishoreganj district, which is about 85 kilometers north of Dhaka.

He purchases waste materials from surrounding footwear businesses and processes them into shoes and sells them in the market. Until recently, these waste materials were thrown away, but with his vision, alongside financial and technical support from SEP, he has now transformed this into a functional circular economy.

Nazir Hossain is another microentrepreneur who materialized his environment friendly venture with support from SEP. Nazir’s plastic tiles are made of plastic waste materials that are non-slippery and heat-resistant, making them an alternative to ceramic tiles. He doubles down on this environmental commitment, stating: “If while trying to reduce the waste, we instead end up multiplying it, then our cause is only futile. It is inevitable for a manufacturing factory to disperse toxic waste, but we attempt our hardest to decrease the amount as much as possible.”

#RecyclingHeroes like Popy, Nazir and Jashim are building new recycling businesses and contributing toward ensuring a livable planet.

A footwear recycling center in Bhairab, Bangladesh. Footwear recycling center in Bhairab. Source: Alal Ahmed / PKSF.

Looking to the future

This year’s Global Recycling Day called for the recognition of citizen-led efforts to utilize waste as a valuable resource. In keeping with the theme, the World Bank launched the #RecyclingHeroes program, an initiative for the microentrepreneurs supported by SEP. The project worked with over 65,000 microenterprises across 30 districts in Bangladesh to mainstream environmentally sustainable practices in agri-business and manufacturing. Over 65 percent of microenterprises supported by the project adopted sustainable waste management practices.

To ensure sustainable and inclusive growth, the country needs a comprehensive and integrated approach to waste and plastic management. This approach must involve all stakeholders, including government agencies, industry, and civil society. There is a strong need for investment in research and development of substitutes for single-use plastics. Businesses should be responsible for mitigating the environmental impacts of their products and packaging at the end-of-life stage. We should also encourage domestic waste sorting and promote policies for plastic management that can foster a sustainable circular economy. The private sector has already taken such initiatives, like investing in plastic recycling pilots in Dhaka and Chattogram to enhance informal value chains and increase plastic waste collection.

For us, these efforts are just a start. We hope that ultimately, celebrating #RecyclingHeroes in Bangladesh can lead to the creation of sustainable circular economies. The World Bank will continue to support Bangladesh to reduce pollution and environment degradation. All these with one aim in mind - To end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity on a livable planet.

Abdoulaye Seck

Country Director, Bangladesh and Bhutan

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