Garbage Grows Economies

Shams-il Arefin Islam ’06 came to the IC campus in fall 2002 and soon learned about its compost facility. Working with environmental clubs and service organizations such as Rotaract, he found out he would be able to study business in the context of environmental issues at IC. After graduating, he returned to his hometown of Dhaka, Bangladesh, to work with Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and the founder of Grameen Bank, which pioneered the concept of microloans.

 “Instead of pursuing a master’s degree, I was immersed in the world of microcredit, Dr. Yunus’s system of giving loans to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans,” Islam said. “His effort to create economic and social development from the ground up is a fantastic way for business to address a social problem.”

In 2010, Islam was invited to visit the Dhaka non-governmental organization Waste Concern, whose founders, Iftekhar Enayetullah, a civil engineer, and Maqsood Sinha, an architect/urban planner, had found a way to convert Dhaka’s garbage into fertilizer. The organization’s motto is Waste Is a Resource.

 “It’s important to remember that Bangladesh is a country of 160 million people living in an area about the size of New York State, which has a population of 19 million,” Islam said. “Over 5,000 tons of waste a day finds its way to the dump sites in Dhaka alone, and many of those sites are open dumps.”

In developed countries like the United States, a lot of waste comes from manufactured items that don’t biodegrade. But in developing countries like Bangladesh, where two-thirds of the people earn their livelihoods from farming, 80 percent of garbage can be broken down into compost, which can be turned into organic fertilizer and sold back to farmers. Waste Concern pays regular wages to people who collect the waste. Formerly, those people eked out subsistence livings by scavenging through the dumps.

When Islam first visited the composting facility in Dhaka, he had a flashback to his time at IC, when the college had its own composting facility.

“Both composting facilities use an aerated static pile system,” he says. “This system allows you to control the temperature and balance the nitrogen and carbon ratios by shoveling the piles at strategic times. Waste Concern’s system is mechanized because it’s much larger. When I first saw it, I knew I had to dedicate myself to what Waste Concern was trying to achieve.”

As Waste Concern’s project manager, Islam prepares reports on waste management and research initiatives for organizations such as UNICEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He also manages hospitality at Waste Concern’s recycling training centers, where mayors from Bangladesh and other Asian countries are schooled in waste management practices.

Waste Concern has established composting facilities at 47 sites throughout Bangladesh and is undertaking sustainable solid waste management programs in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, and the Philippines. In addition to receiving the United Nation’s Poverty Eradication Award, Waste Concern’s cofounders have been recognized by the Schwab Foundation for Social Enterprise and Ashoka Innovators for the Public. Still, says Islam, there’s work to be done.

“We keep our compost prices close to the price of chemical fertilizers to remain competitive, but there are still many farmers who want to use readily available chemical fertilizers. Another issue is the sheer volume of waste being generated. And, as Bangladesh continues to grow and develop, exponential economic growth will negatively affect the environment. Waste collection, retrieval, and recycling have not effectively kept up with such rapid growth.”

We’ll have more hope, he says, if businesses pursue the triple bottom line [people, planet, profit], where profits aren’t the only reason for being.


Read more stories from Wasteland here:

Read about Kat McCarthy '05 and Tompkins County Solid Waste Management

Read about Christopher Bodkin '11 and his business that recycles hospital surgical


– Keith Davis