Innovative Plastic Recycling Helps Improve Rohingyas' Health and Environment in Cox's Bazar

Volunteers wash the plastic wastes, collected from the camps, to further process them for recycling. Photo: IOM/Tarek Mahmud

Famous for the world’s longest natural unbroken sea beach, Cox’s Bazar, in the southernmost part of Bangladesh, suffers from a problem afflicting many of the world’s oceans: plastic waste.

The plastic bags, straws and cups that are tossed aside at cafes and parks are washed onto beaches everywhere. Plastic waste also ends up everywhere: from the bellies of turtles to the shores of isolated islands.

Since 2017, Cox’s Bazar has also been known for hosting the world’s largest refugee camps, with almost a million Rohingya refugees adding to environmental pressures in the district – not just from the families who used to gather firewood from local forests [thanks to use of liquefied petroleum gas, this is a less of a problem now], but also from the rapid accumulation of mountains of plastic waste.

The washed and dried plastic waste, especially polyethylene, is shredded into very small pieces. Photo: IOM/Abdullah Al Mashrif

The plastics scourge is even more serious here, as it chokes waterways and roads in and around the heavily congested refugee camps.

After the massive Rohingya influx in 2017, Rohingya refugee Rofiul, already living with his family in Camp 24 for the last 15 years, was confronted with the alarming situation of many camp residents discarding plastic and other waste, littering their surroundings, leading to pathways being blocked with dirt and filth. In a region prone to monsoons, to make matters worse, very basic drainage systems would clog and overflow with dirty water during and after heavy rainfall, creating breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes, flies, and other vectors.

Among the most significant contributors to this environmental crisis were the ubiquitous non-degradable polythene bags, which would find their way into the waste, clogging drainages and causing stagnant water to accumulate in various places.

The shredded plastic waste is fed into a granulating plastic machine that melts the small pieces of plastic into some kind of noodles. Photo: IOM/Abdullah Al Mashrif

Rofiul witnessed first-hand the detrimental impact of plastic pollution on the quality of the soil, leading to reduced crop and vegetable yields among the refugees who relied on small plots of land for sustenance. It was then that Rofiul and others in the camp decided something had to be done.

In April 2019, they started a waste collection volunteer group and in coordination with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and its partner Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK), with support from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), a functional waste collection system was established.

Finally, something tangible could be done about the mounds of plastics and other waste that had inundated the camps.

After a mechanical process, the harmful plastic waste is turned into learning materials and other useful objects. Photo: IOM/Abdullah Al Mashrif

Daily, the volunteers move around the camps blowing their whistles to alert the refugee households to hand over their waste, including plastics.

Each household is provided with two colour-coded waste bins, one red, and one green, which serve as a visual reminder of the importance of waste segregation – organic waste, such as kitchen scraps and garden trimmings, go into the green bin, while non-biodegradable waste such as plastic, polyethylene goes into the red bin.

Within weeks, this simple but very effective system had empowered the community, fostering a sense of pride and responsibility in keeping their environment clean.

The drying unit where washed plastic waste is kept for drying and then recycled into various useful objects. Photo: IOM/Tarek Mahmud

IOM, DSK and the Rohingya volunteers' activities extended far beyond waste collection. A recycling plant was eventually set up where the polythene bags, once the bane of the camp's existence, were transformed into useful products through innovative recycling methods.

Today, with nearly a million refugees sheltered, the IOM-run recycling plant turns discarded plastic bags, beverage bottles, and another packaging into colourful letter blocks for children, writing slates, pavement slabs, latrine pit cover slabs, ring slabs and other useful products.

The recycling plant is part of the IOM Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) programme strategy in Cox’s Bazar to optimize the reduction, reuse, and recycling of waste produced by refugees.

Each day, the plant processes around 65 kg of plastic bags (approx. 24,830 plastic bags) all collected from camp residents.

A volunteer puts the washed and dried plastic waste, especially polyethylene, into a machine to shred those into very small pieces. Photo: IOM/Tarek Mahmud

So, what does the recycling process entail?

The first step of the recycling process is to wash and dry the plastic waste. After that, the dry plastic waste is shredded into very small pieces, which are then fed into a granulating plastic machine. This machine melts the small pieces of plastic into a kind of noodles and then those are again processed to obtain some small pellets. These small pellets are put in the moulding machine at the end to get the final product.

Current products are being used in camps for different purposes like alphabet blocks for children learning, plastic slabs used as pavement, solid stabilization materials, pit ring slabs for covering the latrine pits, and small plastic slabs for covering the latrine pit opening.

A view of the drying unit where washed plastic waste is kept for drying and then recycled into various useful objects. Photo: IOM/Tarek Mahmud

Slowly but surely, Rofiul's camp has undergone a magnificent transformation. The camp surroundings have become testament to the collective efforts of the community.

The once-dirty pathways are mostly clean, and the air feels much cleaner. The community is now acutely aware of the detrimental consequences of polythene waste and now take great care to dispose of their trash responsibly.

"We are proud to have created space for this innovative project, fighting both plastic waste and illiteracy simultaneously. It is the transformation of something harmful and ugly into something constructive, building a foundation for education," shared Nihan Erdogan, IOM Bangladesh's Deputy Chief of Mission.

As the recycling operation scales up, the plant aims to expand beyond just producing educational materials from the recycled plastic, but also venturing into the production of reusable plastic containers for local markets.

By addressing the environmental impact of plastic waste, the plant also offers positive health benefits to the community. Discarded plastic cups and bottles, that would otherwise provide breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes, were now being repurposed, reducing the risk of illnesses such as dengue fever and malaria among an already vulnerable population.

"I find this project to be truly remarkable. Not only does it effectively address the issue of plastic waste, but it also empowers Rohingya refugees and local communities by equipping them with valuable vocational skills that will undoubtedly have a lasting positive impact,” Sarah Arriola, IOM Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, said during her visit to the recycling centre in May 2023.

RD Arriola added, “In a world where environmental protection is a collective concern, initiatives like this hold immense significance. I hope this this exceptional project can be replicated in numerous other such locations and communities."

Written by Tarek Mahmud and Itayi Viriri.

SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 13 - Climate Action