If you were one of the volunteers who joined Clean up Dhaka and Dhaka North’s mayor to sweep up garbage outside the Parbat cinema in Gabtoli last Friday, I would like to say well done.
But I cannot say thank you for the idea. Volunteers are no way to clean a growing mega-city that produces over 5,000 tons of solid waste each day.
As they say on their Facebook page, Clean up Dhaka is just “seven kids from Japan,” (university students to be precise) who came to Bangladesh because they wanted to do something to “initiate a sustainable change” to encourage residents to clean up the city together and make Dhaka more liveable.
Laudable as their intentions are, volunteering is a futile approach for such an important task.
Of course, if this is the way these students want to spend their holidays, well then good for them; it’s nice that they are humbly trying to be the change they want to see in the world.
But Dhaka’s waste disposal challenge is simply too big a problem to be left to volunteers.
Even if all the tens of thousands who liked CUD’s Facebook page started giving a dozen hours a week to clean up bits of Dhaka (after making their own beds and cleaning their own bathrooms and kitchens of course), it wouldn’t solve the problem or in any way amount to a “sustainable change.”
I realise this is no way to court popularity with clicktivists, but so be it, I need a hobby when I’m not busy pulling candy away from babies.
No, cleaning up Dhaka is a job for its mayors and city corporations. They need to pull their socks up and start delivering practical solutions which go beyond campaign slogans and photo opportunities.
Thing is, cleaning up a city is not exactly rocket science. It’s not even what Sherlock Holmes called a “two-pipe problem.” Everyone knows what it takes to tidy their own room and can look up the simple, proven ways in which other big cities manage to clean up and recycle their waste.
The school-boy error in CUD’s thinking is focusing on the collection part, when lack of labour is not the cause of Dhaka’s waste management problems. As it is, many apartment blocks are served daily by waste collectors. They’re even nicely green and cycle driven. Trouble is even when waste is regularly collected (and perhaps half the city’s waste is not) it tends to be dumped very close-by for sorting on the many notoriously noxious skips which block our city’s roads.
By the time waste reaches official landfills at Amin Bazar and Matuail, who knows how much has been responsibly recycled by waste pickers? Not me for sure.
And probably not the city corporations either, judging by the complacency with which city-dwellers tolerate their lakes and green spaces being polluted. If people who are privately clean in their own households weren’t so complacent about public squalor, Dhaka would have had some Beirut style “you stink” protests by now, methinks.
For all this, it is still easy to imagine what a truly cleaned-up Dhaka should look like. Regularly emptied recycling bins outside every apartment block, office building, and place of worship, where residents are encouraged to dispose of litter responsibly.
Volunteers would not feel left out as everyone would be asked to help pre-sort paper, plastics, and other renewables, and to help community-based recycling schemes make local use of composted organic waste.
On a nation-wide scale, landfills and sewage systems could be adapted to generate bio-gas and there would be strictly enforced laws to ensure electronic and electrical equipment is safely disposed of and professionally recycled.
A science fiction pipe dream, or an absolute necessity to stop the poisoning of the environment and generate new (and less hazardous) income for the city’s waste collectors and recyclers?
Well, it will cost money for sure, but it’s not as if companies and governments from France and Japan haven’t been active in helping to update sewage services and provide garbage trucks.
And what could be a more basic way to expect mayors to spend tax-payer money than taking away the trash?
So, I’ll end with a tip for Dhaka North’s mayor to reconsider how he should spend the Tk500cr he reportedly sought from the finance ministry earlier this year to construct new city corporation headquarters.
My back-of-the-envelope arithmetic suggests that, give or take, this is around $64m.
Let’s say we let the city corporation take a good third of this amount, $24m, to rent extra office space. Over a four-year period, $6m a year could be spent to cover its office needs, while it concentrates on getting the basics of rubbish collection and recycling right.
Ignoring currency fluctuations, this would still leave around $40m.
So consider this. Search engines suggest a brand new 240 litre wheelie bin can be bought in Australia for prices between $80 and $100. Chinese suppliers on Alibaba meanwhile offer 360 litre bins from $35 each at freight on board price. These quotes do not take into account discounts for bulk orders, or the aggressive bargaining skills of local rickshaw users. And that is without even allowing for the possibility of local sourcing.
For the sake of argument though, even if it cost $100 each to procure one large bin, $1,000 could supply 10 large new bins, and $30m at least 300,000.
Of course, you’d need several different bins per building to allow for separation of food waste and other recyclables, but $30m would still cover a set of new large bins for a lot of buildings.
Now let’s consider garbage trucks. One can see 15 cubic metre garbage trucks being advertised online for under $60,000 each. Staying conservative, I’ll say this means it may still cost a million dollars to procure 10 garbage trucks.
Depending on how you want to cut it, that means Dhaka North could buy at least 150 garbage trucks and 150,000 large bins for its $30m.
All this would still leave some $10m, or $2.5m a year if we’re going on four-year electoral cycles, to top up garbage collectors wages or hire a few new ones.
Personally, I think something like this would be a better way forward for the mayor than taking part in a photo op. It wouldn’t solve everything, but, combined with more professional management of city services, it would be a good start.
Clean up Dhaka is right to demand more action to fulfill its aim. Of course, everyone in the city needs to go beyond simply cleaning their own houses, while rubbish and pollution literally pile up next to their houses and clog our water-ways.
But this needs a grown-up professional city corporation. Not a few volunteers to tidy up rubbish now and then. That’s a rubbish idea.