Bangladesh
Dhaka
Adrian Guerin

Meet the people recycling 4,000 tonnes of waste daily

As Dhaka drowns in waste, a handful of citizens are building employment and economic opportunities out of the rubble.

By Adrian Guerin

Dhaka creates up to 4000 tons of waste daily, yet somehow functions without a formal recycling system. Into this sticky void a handful of Dhaka’s citizens have stepped to collect, sort and recycle the waste that would otherwise end up end up at bottom of the Buriganga river, in toxic public landfill sites, or strewn across the city’s streets.

Dotted along the banks of the Buriganga River are examples of Dhaka’s citizen-led recycling industry in action. Kaleidoscopic displays of plastic waste piles adorn the river banks, tended to by the locals who earn a living from collecting and sorting them according to colour. While the industry provides steady employment for the impoverished, the flip-side is in the unregulated nature of the work, which sees workers (many of whom are children) exposing themselves to extremely hazardous conditions.

The children who take part in this work are popularly known as ‘Tokai’. They scour the city’s streets, waste bins, drains and dumpsites in Dhaka city, searching for discarded plastic that can be reused. In order to maximise earnings, children learn to identify, separate and sort the waste according to type, grade and market demand. Separating out non-perishable items of value such as plastic, paper, and glass from worthless waste in mounds of trash is crucial.

Once collected, washed and dried, the plastics are bagged and transported to nearby factories to be melted for reuse. There are approximately 200 factories engaged in recycling plastic bottles in Bangladesh, ranging from brightly lit, air-conditioned factories to tiny, dimly lit and barely insulated tin sheds. I visited the latter.

The most important part of being in a plastic processing plant is not one’s ability to process plastic, but one’s ability to process extreme heat. Within minutes of entering these tiny tin sheds, your body’s sprinkler system will be activated, drenching you from head to toe in sweat. For added fun, every flake, microfibre or particle of matter will decorate your skin by attaching itself to you. Attempting to wipe it off is futile, just embrace your skin’s new fluffy texture.

The sheds are a chaotic quagmire of wires, fans and furnaces; pools of chloride in one corner, a reverberating spinning mill the next. No-one (including me) wore any protection. One wrong move and a finger, arm or eye could be relieved of its duties, and with it, a worker’s livelihood. I almost learnt this the hard way by discovering a fan that had mischievously placed itself in the very spot I was backing into while creating space for a photo. The propellers gave me a (not so gentle) gentle tap on my shoulder, reminding me to stay focussed (idiot abroad). It’s the type of environment where a single lapse in concentration can be fatal.

Despite the conditions, the process itself is streamlined and synchronised. Once the plastic has made its way from the river banks to the processing plant, it immediately undergoes a refining process: chopping, melting, grinding before being turned into pellets. The pellets are cut into smaller pieces and melted in a furnace. The flakes are then stirred before the mixture is sent through a rotating screw to melt the plastic. It then comes out in threads before eventually being made into fibres and material for clothing, pillows, carpets, polyester sheets; or in this case – big blue containers.

Landing somewhere between hope and despair, the story of Dhaka’s citizen-led recycling industry is difficult to categorise. Bangladeshis are turning their waste apocalypse into employment and economic opportunities for some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Not only does this put food on the table, it ensures Mother Nature’s life support machine remains switched on. That children are doing some of the dirty work is the silver lining.

Ultimately, even if Dhaka deployed every one of its 18 million people to collect and recycle every piece of waste, from the bottom of every river to the top of every landfill, the grim reality is that 4,500 tons of it would end up right back there tomorrow. From Dhaka to Melbourne, recycling is only part of the solution; the terminal disease that keeps Mother Nature on life support is called Consumption.