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Precarious informal waste recycling in Dhaka, Bangladesh

"Tokais" do most of the recycling in Dhaka, where growing waste volumes are a major problem. Without the option to "stay home", they work under harsh conditions, even during pandemics, and remain socially stigmatized and deprived from fundamental rights.


Waste volumes in Dhaka are rapidly growing. The mega-city currently produces about 5,000 tons of waste per day, of which only less than half is formally collected. The remaining part is either picked up by informal collectors or discarded indiscriminately into canals and floodplains, severely affecting urban drainage systems and water bodies, and partly also burnt by households. In 2011, the municipality openly stated that it cannot handle all waste produced by the about 12 million people within the city administration limits, while the entire metropolitan area currently already counts 21 million people, accelerated by climate change-induced migration. Responsible for waste collection and disposal are Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) and Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) after in 2011 municipal affairs became divided into two zones in order to provide better services. They also manage the city’s principal landfills – Matuail in the south, and Amin Bazar in the north [1][2].

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Precarious informal waste recycling in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Location of conflict:Dhaka
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Urban development conflicts
Waste privatisation conflicts / waste-picker access to waste
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Specific commodities:Land
Domestic municipal waste
Recycled Metals
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Matuail landfill is the largest dumpsite in Dhaka and receives over 3,000 tons per day, most of that collected in Dhaka South. It currently encompasses an area of 100 acres (40 hectares) and a land acquisition process for a further expansion by 50 acres is on the way. In addition, there have been plans to install a waste-to-energy plant, which could process at least half of the arriving waste [3][16].

Type of populationUrban
Start of the conflict:2008
Relevant government actors:Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC)
Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC)
Local Government Division (LGD)
Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB)
Power Divison
Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (Sreda)
Department of Environment
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Grambangla Unnayan Committee
Association of Waste Pickers in Bangladesh (also called: Bangladesh Waste Pickers Union)
Bangladesh Manobadhikar Sangbadik Forum (BMSF)
Social and Economic Enhancement Programme
Waste Concern
Greenman Bangladesh
Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association
Teach for All
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Informal workers
Local ejos
Wastepickers, recyclers
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Official complaint letters and petitions
Referendum other local consultations
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases
Potential: Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Displacement, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
Institutional changes
Strengthening of participation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Under negotiation
Withdrawal of company/investment
Project temporarily suspended
Proposal and development of alternatives:In the conclusion of a recent case study on waste pickers in Dhaka, Uddin et al. (2020) call for a shift from a waste management system characterized by omission, neglect, and disposability to one that supports resource recovery, inclusion and income generation [12].

Grambangla Unnayan Committee calls for the ensuring of basic work and social rights for waste pickers and children. It notes that their vulnerable situation would be improved by better implementation of the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 2010, the Medical Waste Rule 2008, and other articles in the Constitution to ensure Human Rights and the ILO Convention. Beyond that, an essential step forward would be to engage informal waste pickers in the formal waste management sector, legally accrediting and acknowledging their role in recycling. [9]

The organization lists the following policy recommendations:
- Legal accreditation for informal waste pickers
- Employment of waste pickers in the formal waste management system
- Provision of safety equipment and training to waste pickers
- Special safety net programs for waste pickers
- Special budget for human development measures, such as education and health care for child waste pickers
- Skill training on recycling for waste pickers, such as promoting entrepreneurship and recycling activities

The case of Dhaka shows that formalization of recycling activities would be a crucial step forward to improve conditions and rights of waste pickers, most of whom come from underprivileged parts of society and are often trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and exploitation. However, such a formalization has to come with a careful approach and clear pro-poor policies, as a simple imposing of formal waste management norms would benefit larger private businesses rather than the urban poor who crucially depend on waste picking as a means to survive.

As the largest fraction of Dhaka’s waste is still organic refuse (between 60 and 75 percent), there would also be a large potential to reduce waste volumes and impacts through composting and other organic waste treatments [1].
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Matter, A., Dietschi, M., Zurbrügg, C. (2013): Improving the informal recycling sector through segregation of waste in the household – The case of Dhaka Bangladesh. In: Habitat International, 38, 150 – 156.

[2] Alam, O., Qiao, X. (2020): An in-depth review of municipal solid waste management, treatment and disposal in Bangladesh. In: Sustainable Cities and Society 52 (2020) 101775.

[9] Grambangla Unnayan Committee (2017): Policy Brief. Legal Accreditation for the Informal Sector Waste Pickers and Their Formal Involvement in Municipal Waste Management System: An Opportunity for Their Decent Occupation & Sustainable Livelihood. December 2017.

[12] Uddim, S., Gutberlet, J., Ramezani, A., Nasiruddin, S. (2020): Experiencing the Everyday of Waste Pickers: A Sustainable Livelihoods and Health Assessment in Dhaka City, Bangladesh. In: Journal of International Development (2020). Retrieved from Wiley Online Library.

[3] Khan, M. (2018): Where does all our waste end up?. The Daily Star, 08.06.2018. (Online, last accessed: 17.04.2020)
[click to view]

[4]Hayat, A. (2018): Waste management projects gone to waste. Dhaka Tribune, 12.02.2018. (Online, last accessed: 17.04.2020)
[click to view]

[5] Hasan, S. (2019): LGD moves for incineration-based Waste-to-Energy project. United News of Bangladesh, 29.09.2019. (Online, last accessed: 17.04.2020)
[click to view]

[6] Devnath, B. (2020): Aminbazar, the landfill that ruined lives. The Business Standard, 11.03.2020. (Online, last accessed: 17.04.2020)
[click to view]

[7] Hayat, A. (2017): Waste management down in the dumps. Dhaka Tribune, 25.04.2017. (Online, last accessed: 17.04.2020)
[click to view]

[10] Globalrec (n.d.): Law Report: Bangladesh. (Online, last accessed: 17.04.2020)
[click to view]

[13] Al-Masum, M. (2018): Plastic chokes Dhaka’s drainage. The Third Pole, 09.04.2018. (Online, last accessed: 17.04.2020)
[click to view]

[19] Khan, S. (2019): Unheard, Unseen, Unrecognised: The Plight of Dhaka's Waste Collectors. The Daily Star, 18.01.2019. (Online, last accessed: 17.04.2020)
[click to view]

Khan, M. (2018): Where does all our waste end up?. The Daily Star, 08.06.2018. (Online, last accessed: 17.04.2020)
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[20] “Tokai: The Story of A Street Dwelling Boy, Dhaka. (Video on Youtube, 28.10.2012)
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:EnvJustice Project (MS)
Last update23/04/2020
Conflict ID:5029
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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