How Dhaka can benefit from circular waste management
Large firms offering both commercial and residential waste collection services make a nice bundle of money by collecting and processing trash in the West. Just consider the economic value in the following items: Bottles and cans, toys, metallic objects, boxes, paper products, books, clothing, and old mobile phones and computers – all thrown away without a thought about the negative externalities that they create. Then there is the organic waste generated in millions of kitchens. Is this all trash or is there cash in trash? Cash may be interpreted as benefits not only for individuals, but also for communities, society, the economy, and the very environment that absorbs much of what we carelessly discard. Here, we explore the opportunities that lie hidden in the items that we flippantly discard. Instead of being used or reused, much of it ends up in the landfills.
Today's world is vibrant with innovation. In the last century, we were blessed with unprecedented technological and economic growth. Along with it, however, came new models, new technologies, and new ways of doing the same thing – perhaps more efficiently. As newer innovations made inroads, disposal of old solutions began to generate a mountain of discarded goods never seen or experienced. But there is a great opportunity in all that people discard.
The garbage that we all generate every single day, in hundreds of thousands of tonnes, offers opportunities for economic growth, as well as social transformation. It can all be done through a simple yet effective system.
Firstly, the system in question needs to be designed to create a circular movement in all sectors of urban life, the environment, and the economy. Circularity means perpetual motion, and perpetual growth is the end goal. Let's look at rain, for example. It is a part of a circular process. Water evaporates on a hot day to the atmosphere, and when it cools, it comes down to Earth to evaporate again, repeating the cycle endlessly. Our thinking uses this simple principle of circularity with no resource loss. Instead of water, we move waste in a circular pattern endlessly, generating both economic and social value for citizens. Citizens are the ones who enable circular movement of waste, for which they ought to be rewarded with social/economic benefits. The scope of these rewards depends on their contribution to waste circularity, serving as a catalyst for economic and social growth for both individuals and communities.
Secondly, individuals and different communities within Dhaka can be incentivised to be the building block of the circular flow of waste, based on how much they accumulate individual and community points from the waste they help put in circular motion. The accumulated points then become enablers for personal and community growth, ranging from simple things which would make day-to-day life easier for individual households (e.g. a shopping coupon or a bus pass), to being able to decide what to invest in when talking about community upliftment (e.g. repairing roads, improving schools or street lighting) or even receiving educational benefits or investible funds for sustainable start-ups. In other words, everyone of every background would be able to create a better world, while gaining rewards for themselves and their community in the process. Through such an incentive system, Dhaka city could achieve crowdsourced innovation, stability, and citywide growth in multiple ways.
The entire city could be integrated into this new way of life by making it simple to participate in, while the system is highly rewarding for both individual households and different communities based on points accumulated. All it needs is the adoption of a digital application that is well-designed, and which efficiently incorporates the circular process. It must be simple for the users, but highly impactful by its ability to generate environmental, economic, and societal points from and for all Dhaka residents.
The circular process must be adaptable to the demands of the public and to the goals of the local government leadership, whereby people get exactly the kind of resources they want and need as a benefit for participating in the circular process.
Adaptability and being aligned with the needs of the broader public can make the idea of circularity indefinitely relevant for Dhaka city. It presents itself as a game, bringing everyone together like on a game night with your friends and family. It's a game which you can't lose by mere dedicated participation; but if you win (using the reward system correctly), the world can change around you for the better. This system would uplift everyone in the city while also building a powerful circular economy and a stable, happy and empowered society.
Finally, the idea of circularity can be perpetuated with community-building in mind through a creative endeavour of leadership, technology intervention, and astute management.
The proposed system – rather, a way of life – can be described as an overarching circular-waste-flow-inducing, smart-investment, community-building framework, which unifies a variety of factors for perpetual value generation in all sectors of life in Dhaka. A critical challenge will be to communicate the idea to the city residents to participate in this creative endeavour. A pilot project can make a real difference to make the idea successful.
This op-ed, the third in a four-part series, resulted from the authors' participation in the 23rd ASEF Summer University (ASEFSU23) interdisciplinary hackathon on "Livable Cities for a Sustainable Future" envisioned by Asian and European young professionals and students.
Vilim Borosa is a student of global sustainability science at Utrecht University and chemical engineering at the University of Zagreb.
Dr Syed Saad Andaleeb is distinguished professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and former vice-chancellor of Brac University.