Women empowered by turning waste to wealth

Making home decorations out of waste

Claire Akamanzi, chief executive of the Rwanda Development Board, who is also in charge of the country's tourism development, was the last speaker at the World Travel and Tourism Conference (WTTC) held in Saudi Arabia last year. She was the last speaker because it is Rwanda that will host the WTTC this year. There was a hushed silence throughout the hall when she spoke. Actually, in her lively presentation, she put forward some startling facts. This included a message on preventing environmental pollution.

This country has been through a reconstruction after overcoming the horrors of a civil war only a few years ago. Yet it has been successful in becoming plastic-free. She unhesitatingly said, you all our welcome to our country. Get ready and pack your bags, but kindly avoid bringing any plastic!

Discarded jars, cans and bottles are made into funky vases

It was quite a bold statement at a global event like WTTC, a venue where there was ample scope to promote an important sector like tourism, that opens the doors to foreign exchange.

While Rwanda has managed to break away from the plastic cycle, many countries have been unable to do so. We are on that list. We are continuously manufacturing and using single-use plastic products. There is an open and unregulated use of polythene in the markets.

It is not that there are no initiatives to halt this. But these efforts have not been strong enough to break away from this cycle. And so the ominous threat of water, land and air pollution remain. The more this can be reduced, the better.

There are persons who have come up with certain innovative alternatives to tackle the issue. Fibre is being produced from plastic. That fibre is being used to make clothes, shoes and accessories. Such initiatives have appeared in Bangladesh too, albeit in a scattered manner.

While it may not be a massive undertaking, there is an effort that catches attention. This is the Waste to Wealth project. This basic premise is to transform waste into wealth, in order to prevent pollution in the cities and its outskirts.

World Vision Bangladesh has undertaken this effort. They think of ways to transform waste into wealth, in order to prevent pollution. In order to lend a new direction to their activities other than preventing pollution, in 2021 they arranged an innovation contest with support from the development partner UNDC. A total of 17 universities took part in the contest with all sorts of ideas and innovations.

A Dhaka University team came up third in the contest. This was Wastech. Their innovative thinking was to prevent plastic pollution by recycling plastic into decorative products. World Vision was impressed by their thoughts and thus began their work with Wastech.

While the reach may be limited, the efforts are undoubtedly laudable. This World Vision project is basically urban and in the city outskirts. World Vision Bangladesh, alongside protecting the environment, wanted to establish a sustainable model. This would not only prevent pollution, but by selling the decorative products made from waste, the local poor women would become self-reliant.

Transforming waste into wealth is a creative effort
Making these items is a matter of creativity too. There is a sense of joy in making something completely new out of any old item. Swarupa enjoys that

According to World Vision Bangladesh observations, air pollution is the highest in various areas of Tongi and so that is where the work began. Initially, 60 persons were selected for the project. Wastech provided them training. They later also used discarded glass bottles, cans, polythene, in addition to plastic waste, to make home decor and other items. These include vases, pen holders, fairy jar lights, eco-bags, etc. These items are sold at various fairs. Some even sell these directly from their Facebook page. These items are also sold through online shops. The products sell from Tk 50 to Tk 400.

Swarupa in a young woman who has been trained and now makes these products. She studies in college and makes these items on the side. We were taking to Swarupa recently at Ershad Nagar in Tongi. She explained her work, saying that she collected the waste herself and so didn't need any primary investment.

Later cement, Plaster of Paris, cardboard, paint, etc was required to make new items out of this waste. World Vision Bangladesh provides all this for free, said the organisations Tongi zone programme officer Md Jasim Uddin. He said, a sales outlet has also been set up locally to sell these items.

Making these items is a matter of creativity too. There is a sense of joy in making something completely new out of any old item. Swarupa enjoys that. She makes around Tk 3000 to Tk 4000 a month too. This earning is a boost to her confidence. She can spend this money as she wants. She can use it for her studies or for any family need.

This smart youth of the township has an attractive Facebook page too. She uses that also to sell her ware.

Speaking about the marketing aspect of the initiative, World Vision Bangladesh's Urban Research and Knowledge Management Specialist, Monica Rahman, said that sales are being carried out through Wastech's website and Facebook page. Efforts are being made to sell these at various gift shops.

There is continued training to make these items more attractive and appealing. With proper marketing and sales, the demand for these products will go us, thinks World Vision Bangladesh's senior director, operations and quality, Chandan Z Gomes.

He said that their programme is ongoing and they are working on expanding this beyond Dhaka.

In the meantime, a top garments company has been inspired by this project of World Vision and has expressed their interest in this. They are working on an agreement in this regard, said Chandan Z Gomes.

Talks are also on with the online retail platform Daraz. However, it would be better if they could increase the volume of their products, he said. They are now working on providing training to include more people in this project and increase the number of centres too.

There are discussions the world over about preventing pollution. Accordingly, sustainable initiatives are also being given priority. Reusing is being encouraged. In that aspect, this initiative of World Vision can be a replicable model. Experts feel that others can take lessons from this and similarly make significant contribution to prevent plastic pollution.