A conversation with Abu Hasnat Maqsood Sinha, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Waste Concern
Amidst the greatest waste crisis in our history, in the rapidly expanding hustling megacity of Dhaka, Waste Concern is upbeat with some pioneering and replicable solutions. A transformation was underway when Abu Hasnat Maqsood Sinha and Iftekhar Enayetullah realized in 1995 after their Masters’ thesis, that the problem they were meant to solve was waste.
There was a huge waste problem in Bangladesh then, but no one was trying to solve it at scale. They then founded Waste Concern, with circularity in mind – considering economic and business opportunities for transition to restorative, new business models to stimulate new avenues of product development and cross-sector collaborations, when the idea of circular economy was non-existent.
“We are in a waste and plastic pandemic, but to really move needles, we need to consider waste as a resource. If waste is seen as a problem, it is difficult to solve,” says Sinha. “A big part of our work is looking at how waste can feed into the greater equation of improvement of the urban environment, job creation, and fostering partnerships, which ultimately leads to sustainable development.”
The untapped opportunity in waste, especially organic waste, was obvious to Sinha and Enayetullah. Together, they decided to design a waste treatment facility for organic waste and brought it to scale. Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, Waste Concern has, since its inception, set an epitome for waste management, redefining growth and focusing on positive society-wide benefits through its innovative business models. To understand more about Waste Concern’s business models and their pioneering work, I caught up with Abu Hasnat Maqsood Sinha to talk about the organization’s role in designing a better approach to the waste industry. The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
How is Waste Concern tackling the problem of waste?
Having realized that a major portion of the waste is composed of organic matter (80%), we initially started as a social business enterprise with fringed sources, promoting waste recycling activities through community-based decentralized composting technology using a public- private community partnership model in Dhaka. We collect organic waste, send it to waste recycling centres and turn it into compost for horticulture and agriculture. As we started piloting this model, we also promoted the concept of the ‘4Rs’ – reduce, reuse, recycle, and recovery of waste.
We first involved the community and asked them to participate in source segregation and be aware of the waste problem while participating in the house-to-house waste collection program. Secondly, we take the segregated organic waste to processing centres (several small enterprises have been created in different neighbourhoods), which then gets turned into organic fertilizers and compost. Thirdly, we market the compost to farmers.
Back in 2010, when the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) market was thriving, we also established a company named WWR Bio Fertilizer Ltd, jointly with a Dutch company to build compost plants with the plant capacity of 700 tons/day to create a model that reduces methane and trades the value of equivalent carbon reduced to organizations in need of carbon offsets.
We also partnered with UNESCAP to pilot a decentralized Integrated Resource Recovery Centers (IRRCs) that are locally appropriate and pro-poor facilities to recover the economic and ecological waste value from waste resources. IRRC is a small-scale decentralized community- based waste to resource model that uses simple techniques like transforming organic waste into compost or biogas to capture the value of waste.
How do Waste Concern’s models contribute to the sustainable management of waste and overall sustainable development?
Landfills have long been considered the ultimate solution to waste management, but the realization of its negative externalities was always ignored. Landfills present a great risk due to the production of harmful gases like carbon dioxide and methane, a gas that is 32 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide once waste decomposes.
Considering the problem of land scarcity and increased organic waste generation, energy recovery is the most sustainable option we can think of today. Our decentralized composting facility extracts the valuable feedstock and introduces a new form of uses in cascades – either as energy or fertilizers, a tenet for circularity. Not to forget the carbon emissions avoided through resource recovery.
Alongside the management of waste, we also help build social capital by fostering partnerships, creating jobs. Community benefits through a cleaner, healthier environment and the public sector benefit through the reduced collection, disposal, and transportation costs for solid waste management. The environmental benefits are through reduced methane emissions and better fertilizers for soil health. So far, our model has reduced 19,000 tons of carbon emissions each year and generated more than 1,000 jobs for the urban poor.
As for the many economic benefits, by diverting waste from landfill sites, an IRRC can save a substantial municipality expenditure on transport costs, extend the life of existing landfills, reduce government spending on chemical fertilizer subsidies and improve the yield of crops.
The scope of social benefits includes the generation of green jobs for low-income groups, improved living conditions, and improved community understanding of critical environmental issues.
We have replicated this model in other communities in 5 countries with land provided by public agencies and the government. We also have a Regional Recycling Training Centre in Dhaka to offer training programs and help officials undertake full operational activities of the model.
Can you give an overview of the waste situation in Bangladesh?
Urban areas of Bangladesh currently generate 30,000 tons of waste per day, compared to 6,500 tons in 1991 and 13,300 tons in 2005. Food and organic waste make up the majority (over 80%) of waste, ending up at landfills in Bangladesh.
Municipal waste of the urban areas contains 8% of plastics. Bangladesh exported 0.82 million tons of virgin resin and produced 0.33 million tons of recycled resin in the year 2014-2015.
Today, urban areas of the country generate an estimated 0.8 million tons of plastic waste every year. About 36% of the total plastic waste generated is recycled, while 39% is landfilled, and the rest, 25% is considered leakage or unattended and finds its way into the marine environment.
What is the plastic situation in the country like?
Currently, the plastic footprint in Bangladesh is 11.95 kg/capita/year, whereas it is 22.14 kg in Dhaka city, and it is becoming an acute problem here.
Bangladesh was the shining example when it came to banning plastics - it was one of the first countries in the world to ban polythene bags, which are less than 55 microns thick after they were found to have choked up waterways. Although the ban is now almost two decades old, we still use it as a staple material for convenience due to a lack of available alternatives and effective enforcement of the ban.
Once heralded as a cheap and convenient way to carry groceries, this material is now a scourge of the modern environment. But imagine life without plastics! It is almost impossible as it brings countless benefits to our everyday lives – think of our homes, appliances, products in our surroundings, packaging. Think of convenience, too – we can’t really carry meat/fish products in paper bags!
How do you think we should address the problem of plastics and the problem of waste in general?
To stem the tide of waste flowing into our environment, we need to start by considering waste not as a problem but as a resource. Waste, when it goes to landfills, not just pollutes the environment but also wastes a valuable resource. We need systems that can help to recover that value, understanding the upside that exists amid dealing with waste. Take, for example, the meat industry in Bangladesh – the slaughterhouse waste, if turned into biogas, can transform our energy sector.
To create a commodified demand for these recovered resources, they should have a competitive advantage and a market value, which governments need to subsidize by putting their minds in monetizing co-benefits from resource recovery. For example, urea, as a fertilizer, has been subsidized heavily by the government, but no subsidies, green finance are given to compost fertilizers. Also, the existing waste management policy neither includes any waste to energy recovery targets nor does it explain any recycling or reuse targets. Besides, there are little to no provisions for incentives for waste minimization.
As for plastics, we need a new plastics economy and rethink the future of plastics with a systemic approach and new collaboration models driven by the concept of circular economy and closing the loop. Consumer goods companies, plastic packaging producers and manufacturers play a critical role with an Extended Producer’s Responsibility (EPR) in this because they determine what products and materials are put in the market for consumers to use. Then, also consider the waste pickers that are involved in the collection and sorting- these waste pickers are the unsung heroes of waste management, and their role needs to be formalized, ensuring they are paid fair wages.
Economically viable polyethylene alternatives also need to be provided to people. With biodegradable plastics still being on the research stage and being 5 times more expensive, users
are not left with many choices. Bangladesh being the second-biggest producer of jute after India, the country is looking into other low-cost biodegradable jute alternatives.
The negative externalities of waste could be avoided drastically also if people amended their behaviour. Recycling and zero waste habits take time, but every individual action matters. Since waste is an inevitable by-product of humans, it is important to start making changes, even by taking smaller steps toward change. People could simply start with avoiding single-use items and choosing durable materials that can be used numerous times instead, ensuring less waste ending up in landfills.
“One persons’ waste is another persons’ resource.” This saying rings so true today, especially when we are increasingly trying to fix the linear culture or the “throwaway culture.” In fact, embracing a circular model, where we try to keep resources in use for as long as possible is also great for addressing climate change as it eliminates the need to extract new materials.
Also, let’s note that over half of GHG emissions worldwide are associated with food and material production systems and our linear extractive system is the major driver of climate change.
The 1.5 degree target of the Paris Agreement can only be achieved by combining circular approaches with current efforts on climate mitigation like renewable energy and energy efficiency. So, one of the solutions to the climate problem can be as simple as radically reducing emissions from carbon-carrying gases, most of which are present in landfills. Given how waste has been deemed as one of the major contributors to climate change, we can go really far in solving the dual problem of waste and climate change if we consider sewage like carbon dioxide!
So, let’s muster the creative resources, investments and innovative methods needed to fix the problem!
Mimansha is a Visiting Researcher at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD).