Awareness raising and capacity building towards proper solid waste management: Improving waste-related health outcomes

By: Jannat Ferdosh

Having an educational background in health, I have always aspired to put my knowledge into action by disseminating messages about health care awareness and disease prevention, just as our educational system and books taught us to do. But I never gave any thought to the possibility that there might be other factors involved in disease causation which are not fully explained in the books and are disregarded by the concerned authorities that can be realized through context, circumstances, and real-world experiences. For instance, I discovered, after moving abroad in 2016 for my studies, that I knew very little about proper solid waste management. I grew up seeing common practices like open dumping and burning of waste, so it would seem very normal to me. But now I realize that open dumping is inappropriate and unsanitary, and that poorly managed waste is hazardous to human health in many ways. Given Bangladesh’s poverty, a burden of 166 million people, and the prevalence of both communicable and non-communicable diseases, it is often overlooked that improper waste management can have a serious negative impact on public health. And it actually happened, recently Bangladesh experienced the second-worst dengue outbreak since 2019 with 56,496 cases and 247 fatalities, while the uncontrolled dumping of plastic wastes such as used utensils, tin cans, coconut shells, bags, and containers has been blamed for the outbreaks; however, apart from causing mosquito-borne diseases, exposure to solid waste heightened the risk of many other infectious diseases and injuries in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, there are few measures, documents, and further research of these waste-related health risks.

How I became interested in working in waste management

After completing my Masters of Public Health, I returned to Bangladesh in 2018 and started working in Cox’s Bazar as a humanitarian aid worker in an emergency response program for Rohingya refugees who fled Bangladesh to escape religious persecution in Myanmar. Cox’s Bazar is a sub-district of Chittagong district, located on southeast coast of Bangladesh. It is known for having the world’s longest natural sandy beach, and attracts approximately two million visitors per year.

Unfortunately, poor waste management is present despite the area’s popularity as a tourist destination; just as visitors are unaware of littering, so are local residents. There is visible filth everywhere in the streets, drains, and sewers, and in front of eateries. The saddest part is that people stroll calmly past the garbage piles, cows and goats graze on dirt, and dogs and cats strew trash and make the surroundings nasty and germ infested. What a miserable scenario; I have to see and experience this every day on my way to work even if I don’t want to. This issue always bothered my mind and made me depressed. It started to bother me even more when the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020 and I became completely obsessed with maintaining hygiene and cleanliness; but I could not because other people were not maintaining it. I kept wondering why there is no implementation of law, why waste is not managed properly despite having a municipality office responsible for waste management. In my mind, I continuously tried to find the gaps and the solutions.

First, I was able to apprehend and identify the problems, then I realized laws and the municipality are at the center; the people and residents should be aware of and responsible for their own behavior because waste is ultimately generated by the people from their households, shops, and offices. Then I started thinking about how to raise awareness about the risk of poor solid waste management, and in doing so, I started thinking and looking for different ways to accomplish this like doing campaigns on the beach, in offices, and in shops and many other initiatives. But at the same time, I had a full-time job, so I could not concentrate on which path to choose and how to start. Finally, I saw the fellowship opportunity from ThinkWell in June 2022. I applied and was selected to implement my proposed project on waste management-related awareness raising and capacity building. I felt so fortunate and happy that I couldn’t put it into words. This is an opportunity for me that will assist me in all aspects of making my project idea a reality, from finance to mentorship support.

Concept of my proposed project

The project I aim to conduct for this fellowship will be divided into three components: awareness raising, capacity building, and developing a comprehensive framework for proper solid waste management at the community level. My project will focus specifically on the awareness raising component as according to experts; this component is the key, and even the best waste management strategy is not successful without it. Through this project I will motivate people to change their attitude and behavior by influencing their internal (e.g., self-realization, sense of risk, ethical norms) and external (e.g., subjective norms, law enforcement, etc.) stimuli. Then in the second component, emphasis will be placed on capacity building both for the general population and municipality workers on the correct methods of waste storage and collection while maintaining safety control. Furthermore, as the third component, a comprehensive framework will be developed from lessons learned for advocacy and policy recommendation. As for tackling this waste crisis, there is an immediate need to design and develop effective solid waste management guidelines based on the country context and existing setup.

Like other developing countries, Bangladesh is a densely populated country plagued with many problems, including poverty; dealing with everything through the government alone is not possible unless an integrated effort is made; however, if the populace steps forward and demonstrates willingness to engage with the government to address different societal issues and challenges, it is possible to bring about a radical change in society. At the same time, a nonprofit or non-government organization can educate people on the one hand and provide local government with various strategic guidelines on the other. Moreover, it is my life’s work to establish a nonprofit, community-based organization that will act as a means of bridging the gap between the general public and local authorities and help to speed up community development.