Neoliberal waste management in Bangladesh: dumping into rivers

Young children collect plastic trash to recycle from the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Most of the plastic is the polyethylene kind used for bags, food containers, & packaging. Child labor scavenging through garbage is odious but it isn’t the worst of this story.

The Buriganga, once the city’s main source for drinking water, is now a municipal & industrial sewage pit considered biologically & hydrologically dead. Every day the city of Dhaka discharges tons of household, medical, & chemical waste, as well as sludge, untreated sewage, dead animals, plastics, & oil pollutants into the river. In addition, every day textile, pharmaceutical, & leather tanning manufactories dump thousands of tons of solid waste (animal flesh, dissolved hair, fats) & liquid waste (a toxic potpourri of dyes, chemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, lime, formaldehyde, bleach, heavy metals, sulfuric acid, lead). Neither the city nor the industrial plants operate waste treatment facilities so they discharge contaminated efflux into open gutters flowing to the river through slum areas where millions of people live & children play.

In January 2010, the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) bankrolled a three-month pilot project to extract hundreds of thousands of tons of trash from the river, mostly the non-biodegradable polyethylene plastic. The BIWTA estimated the project would remove some 300,000 cubic metres of waste, weighing roughly the same in metric tonnes when wet. (One metric tonne is over 200 pounds more than the US ton.) The waste removed was to be transported by trawlers to a dumping ground where the polyethylene trash would be sorted & properly disposed. The BIWTA claimed if the pilot project fared well they would launch a full-scale clean up program with modern excavators to complete river clean up. They didn’t mention how or if the chemical & sewage contamination would be addressed. Most notably, they didn’t discuss requiring waste treatment programs or facilities.

From this photo taken just recently, it appears the pilot project is behind schedule or didn’t fare well. It would certainly be useful if there was some evidence the waste was actually removed & properly disposed. Perhaps they could elaborate how polyethylene waste could be properly disposed. By dumping it in Somalian fishing waters or in an African country without environmental laws? Perhaps Bangladesh authorities could also explain why they continue to allow polyethylene products to be manufactured & widely used after they banned them.

The worst of the story is that the little guy is scavenging in a contaminated river likely to give him any number of illnesses. Tannery workers (which includes children) dealing with these chemicals suffer many health conditions–skin & respiratory ailments, disfigured or amputated limbs. They endure discolored, itchy, peeling, acid-burned, & rash-covered skin; fingers corroded to stumps; aches, dizziness, nausea.

An ugly adjunct to this story is that contaminated tannery waste products (including amputated limbs) are processed into poultry feed for the growing poultry industry in Bangladesh. It doesn’t require a single epidemiological study to understand that feeding livestock animals chemical, contaminated offal will compromise animal & human health. The problem is not that it is untreated & unsterilized but that it is not suitable as food. And yet, there is no government monitoring of poultry feed production.

If you want to understand how human beings have become not just the chattel but the offal of the global sweatshop system it is certainly to the point that the number of billionaires in Bangladesh increased three-fold in the past decade (according to the central bank). And this is not just the regrettable saga of Bangladesh but of neoliberalism, the barbaric phase of capitalism.


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