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Danish researchers aim to reduce plastic pollution in Bangladesh

A Danida project led by the University of Southern Denmark aims to assist small producers in Bangladesh with better and more efficient plastic recycling, benefiting the environment, climate, and workers' health.

By Sebastian Wittrock, , 2/5/2024

Tons of packaging, bottles, foil, empty wire spools, and remnants of nylon and polyester.


Bangladesh is home to the world's second-largest garment industry, and with the massive production of clothes and textiles comes a massive amount of plastic waste.


Some of this waste is already being recycled today, especially by small producers in the so-called informal sector in the capital, Dhaka, who melt the plastic and transform it into new products such as cutlery or chairs. The problem, however, is that this often happens under disorganized, dangerous, and polluted conditions.


A new research project supported by Danida aims to address this issue.


- Our project is about, not so much reducing the use of plastic in the industry, but improving the way the plastic is recycled afterwards," explains Jan Vang, a professor at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Southern Denmark and the research leader for the project.


- We want to improve the working environment, so workers and people in local areas are not exposed to as many chemical fumes. We also aim to reduce CO2 emissions in production and explore the possibilities for creating more valuable products."


Collaboration at the core

In addition to researchers from the Faculty of Engineering, professor Dewan Ahsan from the Faculty of Social Sciences at SDU, a researcher from Aalborg University, and researchers from two universities in Bangladesh are also involved.


The collaboration, not just between researchers but also with local authorities and the small, informal producers working with plastic in Bangladesh, will be crucial, Jan Vang explains.


- We are working with what is somewhat modernly called co-creation. Instead of coming in and imposing one solution on all the different actors, we need to collaborate with them to develop some alternative production methods.


Specifically, the researchers will, among other things, map the production process and measure exposure to toxic fumes in order to suggest how production can be improved.


- And then we focus on whether the products they are making now can be replaced with ones that have a slightly higher earning per product, that is, more valuable products. This hopefully leads to greater profits, which can be reinvested in production, thus ensuring it becomes ever greener. With more advanced production, more skills are required from the workers, making the companies more dependent on them, and then the workers can demand slightly higher wages, says Jan Vang.


Social or green sustainability?

The project is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a Danida project and has a total budget of 10 million Danish kroner.


And it is a good example of how, in the green transition, one might need to balance environmental and climate considerations on one hand with the economic interests of the local population on the other, the professor believes.


- The best thing for the environment and climate would, of course, be to reduce plastic consumption, but on the other hand, there are many people who are economically dependent on the plastic waste from the clothing industry. It's a dilemma between green sustainability and social sustainability, says Jan Vang.


This will often be the case with projects in developing countries, he believes. A compromise must be found.


- A follow-up project could, of course, be to take the next step and investigate whether the plastic could be replaced without negatively affecting those dependent on it. But now we take the first steps and look at how we can ensure that the waste that exists is recycled in an appropriate manner.


Making a real difference

Jan Vang dismisses any notion that it could be problematic at all to engage with actors in the informal sector, who operate under the radar of the authorities, perhaps even criminally, and employ people under unregulated conditions.


- One is naive if one thinks that one can work in developing countries without working with the informal sector. Up to 90% of the population is employed in it. That's where you need to be if you want to make a real difference, he says.


However, it's not only the developing countries that can benefit from the new research project, the professor emphasizes. Danish companies can too.


- Danish companies need to overhaul their global supply chains in the coming years. They need to be sustainable and resilient. The project – along with a handful of other projects I have – creates new knowledge that companies can directly use in this context.

Editing was completed: 05.02.2024