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Bangladesh turns urban trash into compost and cash

Nov 27, 2002

MIRPUR, Bangladesh - Wearing green overalls, black rubber boots, gloves, and a face mask, a petite woman in her early 40s carefully sorts through a pile of household trash with a small rake. Separating kitchen scraps from bottles and cans, Fulzan Begum spreads the scraps onto bamboo shelves set up under a tin roof. A mild smell, like rotten leaves, hangs in the air. "I don't mind this job; it pays my rent and I am helping the environment," said Begum, who has worked for a year at a center that turns garbage into organic fertilizer. The waste-processing center in Mirpur, a suburb of the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, is run by Waste Concern, a nongovernment research organization based in the capital. It was formed in 1995 by architect Maqsood Sinha and Iftekhar Enayetullah, a civil engineer, to tackle the solid waste problem of this densely populated nation. After aerating for days, the decaying organic material is sifted through large sieves by hand. The resulting product, compost, is packed into sacks, ready for delivery to a fertilizer company. "Waste is a big problem, but it is also a resource," said Sinha, executive director of Waste Concern. Dhaka, a crowded city of more than 10 million people, produces more than 3,500 tons of trash daily, 80 percent of it organic and suitable for composting, Sinha said. Nonorganic trash, such as plastic, paper, and glass, is collected and recycled. But for now, scraps from kitchens and food markets is left behind to rot in overflowing garbage dumps or landfills. Sinha and Enayetullah have been working to motivate local communities, city councils, and private companies to turn trash into cash. In Dhaka, Waste Concern-trained trash-pickers collect garbage house-to-house in bicycle carts and take it to processing centers where it is transformed into compost in 55 days. With support from the United Nations Development Program, the government, the local community, and Dhaka City Corporation, the organization runs five waste-processing centers, employing 120 people in five poor districts of Dhaka. Spread across an acre of land donated by the Lions Club of Dhaka, the Mirpur center employs 16 people: 6 men who collect the trash and 10 women who process it into compost. The center can handle three tons of trash daily. Begum, a widowed mother of three, is paid about $20 per month, working eight hours a day. The pay may be meager, but most Bangladeshis live on less than a dollar a day, and it is more than she earned doing odd jobs in her home village. Nearly 30 percent of the center's profit comes from the trash collection service, while most is earned selling the compost to a fertilizer company, Alpha Agro. The Dhaka-based company enriches the compost with minerals and sells it to farmers in rural Bangladesh. Nearly 80 percent of this nation's 130 million people are dependent on agriculture. Bangladeshi farmers use nearly 3 million tons of pricey, chemical fertilizers annually, but their overuse has depleted the soil of organic nutrients, according to the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute. The organic fertilizer made from urban waste is not only cheaper but also increases crop yields and nourishes the soil, the Institute reported. Turning the more than 17,000 tons of waste produced daily nationwide into compost could meet nearly 27 percent of farmers' demands for fertilizer, Enayetullah said. If done countrywide, the garbage-to-compost project could also create 90,000 jobs and save money for cash-strapped city councils. "The Dhaka city corporation spends 300 million taka ($5 million) annually to dispose of garbage. We can reduce the cost by 70 to 80 percent and generate revenue," Enayetullah said. So far, 14 other towns across Bangladesh have signed up to start similar projects. For their work, Sinha and Enayetullah have been honored with this year's Race Against Poverty Award, presented by the U.N. Development Program. Introduced in 1997, the award marks the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. It includes a citation but no cash prize.

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