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 .
Matuail landfill receives about 88 percent of the formally collected waste, while the rest goes to Amin Bazar. Both sites were supposed to be upgraded to sanitary landfills in 2008, but there have been major environmental problems and deficiencies in monitoring . At Matuail landfill, recent reports noted inadequate leachate treatment and insufficient compacting of waste by the responsible Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC). The site has been used since 1995 and now extends over an area of 100 acres (40 ha), with garbage mountains of more than 20 meters in height. In 2018, the land acquisition process for its further extension was initiated and the installation of a waste-to-energy plant considered . The controversial dumpsite of Amin Bazar lies in an area marked as floodplain outside the city, near homes of about 22,000 villagers. Dumping was started by DNCC without official permission from the Department of Environment and has now led to an overflow of waste in the area, resulting in an ongoing legal battle to stop the activities – see also the related case in the EJAtlas. At the end of 2019, the Local Government Division (LGD) announced a waste-to-energy pilot project in cooperation with the Power Divison and the DNCC in the area, after earlier similar plans for two projects with an Italian company were dropped due to financial problems. As it was further communicated, a working group with different public bodies would soon select between different proposals from international firms . A frequent critique is the lack of long-term planning when it comes to waste disposal, as the city corporations would just extend dumpsites once they get full but continue to dump in an uncontrolled and unsustainable manner .
In a 2011 issued 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) strategy, the Department of Environment, among others, made source segregation of waste mandatory and tackled illegal waste disposal. The strategy, which was developed with the organization Waste Concern, the UNCRD, and the Japanese Cooperation Agency (JICA), specifies the number of waste management guidelines and also allows for waste-to-energy projects . Also NGOs like Prodipon and Prism worked for better solid and medical waste management and the support of informal recyclers. Under current legislation, waste management remains the responsibility of each city corporation, which indirectly excludes waste pickers as they cannot make legitimate claims on access to waste. A 2017 draft of the new Solid Waste Management Rules could soon boost the recycling sector but does not clearly address the inclusion of the informal sector. It is thus feared that waste pickers, who depend on the activity as their source of livelihood, might just receive further competition from commercial businesses . As of 2020, there are no policies in place that would address the inclusion of people working in the informal recycling sector .
Alam and Xiao (2020) note that the implementation of effective waste management policies still lags behind and has mostly focused on pilot projects in selected areas. Recycling is still mostly done by the informal sector due to a lack of funding, political will, and public ignorance of waste management issues . In Dhaka, several projects were initiated with the aim to improve waste collection, often with the support of international cooperation. For example, secondary transfer stations should have become installed in every neighborhood, but often no adequate space for these could be found or locals or influential land speculators were opposed to the plans, delaying or preventing implementation.  Also a ban on the use of plastic bags, adopted by Bangladesh as the first country in the world, remains widely ignored .
Thus, problems of overflowing waste and illegal dumping prevail. In many parts of the city, especially plastic packaging has taken over entire canals, which have now turned into dumping zones. Waste from littering now often blocks the sewage systems, a situation that even worsens in times of monsoon rains and leads to the flooding of streets and low-lying slums, and a rise in mosquito-borne dengue, chikungunya, and malaria. Another problem is polymer leachate, which could be toxic for fish and water birds [13.] Also outlying districts of Dhaka like Kamrangirchar have become informal dumping grounds, where the waste ends up in the river and poor people, including children, seek to earn some income from spontaneous recycling jobs . The situation is similar in the neighborhood of Gawair, where a school has launched a campaign against plastic waste and held workshops with the local community. Students wrote letters to the local parliament demanding better waste management .
While these garbage problems are only being tackled slowly, it is the informal sector that does a large part of the recycling. According to estimates, about 15 percent of Dhaka’s waste is recycled by waste pickers, commonly called tokais. Dhaka is among the cities with the worldwide highest concentration of informal waste pickers in the population, an estimated 120,000 people in total, predominantly women and children. The collecting, sorting, and selling of recyclables provide them with a crucial source of income, while it helps the municipality reducing waste volumes and waste disposal costs. The informal recycling chain typically focuses on metals, paper, plastic, glass, and food leftovers, but also recovers value from specific waste such as animal guts, bladders, and stomachs as well as cattle bones and horns, which are mostly exported to East Asian countries. As Bangladesh has a significant plastic recycling industry, demand for recyclables is high and thus about 50 percent of all plastic waste is recovered, largely by the informal sector. Despite this enormous contribution, tokais remain excluded from the formal waste management system. They are often looked down upon and face various forms of discrimination, as waste from which they gain value is not considered their property . Authorities nevertheless tolerate informal waste picking, knowing that a stricter enforcing of regulations on the informal sector (e.g. to formalize employment, register businesses, impose norms) would disincentivize such recycling in the short-term, driving people further into poverty while aggravating the waste problem .
There are about 2,500 tokais work at Matuail landfill, the majority of them women who migrated from rural areas, often joined by their children. Waste picking allows them to sustain themselves relatively independently as they can around Tk 200 a day (US$ 2.30), but also comes with big health and safety risks . The community has received support from the Grambangla Unnayan Committee, which has provided waste pickers in Matuail with safety gear, founded self-help groups and managed to include a few dozens of them into formal waste management schemes. The non-profit organization has been advocating waste pickers' and children's rights and has organized public forums with civil society organizations, academics, journalists and waste pickers to urge authorities to guarantee these. It also runs a school for more than 200 waste picker children, supported by funds from international NGOs. Also, capacity-building for waste pickers is offered, for example in sewing, to enable them to find other work . In 2015, Grambangla initiated the first attempt to organize waste pickers in a union, funding the “Association of Waste Pickers of Bangladesh”, which has now more than 500 members – mostly women from Matuail. Some of their principal goals included the obtaining of legal accreditation by the city corporation, the establishing of waste picker rights, and the inclusion of waste pickers and possibly cooperatives into formal waste management schemes .
While Dhaka’s tokais collect materials in the streets and markets, from collection points, and at dumpsites, there are also itinerant buyers (called feriwallas), who buy higher value recyclables from households, and door-to-door collectors (gariwallas), who typically collect mixed waste with cycle-vans and bring it to the municipal containers . Gariwallas are usually “informally employed” by local welfare organizations or political leaders and in charge specific streets, in which residents, shops, and restaurants are willing to pay for their service. There are between 6,000 to 7,000 such private employers in Dhaka, who have to seek permission for each area from the city corporation but are often not formally registered as businesses. Tokais, gariwallas and feriwallas in a way compete over some types of waste. Households often store the more valuable recyclables – such as PET bottles – to sell them to feriwallas, while tokais depend on free access to waste. After completing their shifts, gariwallas often continue to pick out recyclables for a few more hours in order to supplement their low salaries .
Much of this work is done by child waste pickers. A prerequisite for the private door-to-door collection that prohibits the recruitment of children is not sanctioned in practice. Many of the collectors start as kids with a monthly income of Tk. 1,000 ($US 12), which with more experience can rise up to Tk. 4,000 in the following years. For many child waste pickers, the work for extremely low wages nevertheless provides an important means to survive. Local NGOs, however, point out that waste collection is a profitable business and that children are exploited in the absence of monitoring, ignoring not only occupational safety but also the rights of children . Also many tokais are children from poor families, who for example pick up bottles and plastic items in the streets while their mothers do some other jobs .
Another problem besides child waste picking and labor exploitation in the informal sector is the illegal recycling of medical waste, for example of used syringes, blades, and expired medicines. Such waste is sometimes illegally sold by health care workers to the informal plastics recycling industry or collected by waste pickers from bins outside hospitals or dumpsites. As Patwary et al. (2011) note, an illicit economy has emerged that repackages and resells recyclable medical items to communities. People involved in the process are often not aware of the associated risks of infectious diseases and other health hazards. The situation is aggravated by weak regulations, corruption at the management level, and prevailing poverty, both of disadvantaged people involved in the recycling activities and of those who would buy cheap medical products . As of 2020, there were still no sufficient capacities to dispose of medical waste in Dhaka, despite existing rules that demand specialized dumping grounds for such waste and NGOs sensitizing hospitals for the issue . Journalist investigations revealed that from a daily disposed 4,000 kg of plastic hospital waste, about 3,500 kg currently end up on the black market. Waste is processed in small scrap shops – which can be found, for example, in Islambagh, Old Dhaka, where numerous informal recyclers dissembling blood bags, syringes, etc. under poor conditions – and is sold to small manufacturers, who produce items such as shoes, kitchen utensils and furniture .
A 2017 report by Grambangla gives an overview of daily challenges of waste pickers and associated violations of human rights. About 85 percent of all waste pickers are illiterate and many of them lack birth certificates or ID cards, which excludes them from access to welfare programs. Children in waste picker families are usually unable to access education, and so the vicious cycle of poverty continues, with few other opportunities than work under inhumane conditions, and frequent discrimination and harassment in public. These circumstances often lead to exploitation by intermediaries when it comes to selling recyclables, lending equipment or taking up loans, and dependencies on officials or private actors, as there is also an ongoing tendency to restrict access to waste transfer stations and municipal waste dumps. In addition, waste pickers are exposed to hazardous waste, toxic substances, infectious diseases, and numerous occupational and health risks. Excluded from formal employment, they remain without access to the social security system .
A recent case study by Uddin et al. (2020) further highlights the precarious and vulnerable situation of waste pickers in Dhaka. Being socially and culturally marginalized, with little agency to actively voice their claims, waste pickers also lack political and infrastructural support that would improve their lives and working conditions. In most cases, tokais have migrated from rural parts of Bangladesh – often following natural hazards, family conflicts, or the lack of jobs – and have not actively chosen to work with waste, but had no other opportunity. They do not receive a fair payment for the services they provide and also have difficulties to move to another job. They often face financial problems due to fluctuating prices for recyclables and a temporary inability to work when becoming sick. The majority of them have no stable home or are homeless, and no access to public services, such as education, water, and sanitation; about half of them have health problems. They are exposed to extremely high health and safety risks, often without basic protection from hazardous waste and infectious diseases – such as most recently during the COVID-19 outbreak, when many waste pickers had no other choice than to continue working to make a living . Also thousands of employed municipal cleaners and gariwallas hired by area-based voluntary organizations continued working, but did not receive any safety gear so that the house-to-house spreading of the virus was feared .