Dhaka scavenger, Taslima, was delighted to hear about Project Bottle Economy that will enable her to earn more from her work.

A pair of technology students in Bangladesh came up with an innovative plastic recycling initiative to seed sustainable development in their country. Their proposal was full of transformative potential and won the Festival for Change 2020 Environment Theme Final and the People’s Vote writes Nicolette Boater.

Trash collectors gathering plastic for recycling are a common sight in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. When computer scientist, Mohammad Rayed, saw them tossing Covid-contaminated waste around he was aghast. 

It was a light-bulb moment for 21-year-old Mohammad. “How can we expect people fighting for their next meal to recycle effectively without empowering them economically,” he asks. It compelled him to find a way of giving the waste gatherers more of a stake in recycling plastic waste effectively.  Mohammad saw that as a way to offset the spiral of poverty, food insecurity, ill-health, and environmental neglect that is commonplace in his country.

Festival for Change 2020
Mohammad Rayed and Asma Arisha were finalists in our Festival for Change Challenge where we asked for project proposals for how to ‘Build Back Better’. They were judged by a range of experts. The criteria applied were that the project demonstrates:

  • Original practical thinking drawing on diverse perspectives;
  • Respond to changes in the socio, political and economic context post pandemic;
  • Addresses major issues – such as ecological crisis, social fragmentation or economic dysfunction; and
  • Communication with impact – clear, compelling and creative.

You can see further information about our Festival Change and all the finalists here.

Mohammad shared his thoughts with fellow student and research partner Asma Arisha. They had an established, shared perception that technology held the keys to building a more sustainable world. That, and a desire to help the poorest and environmentally-vulnerable in Bangladesh made them natural collaborators.

Asma had long campaigned against the Bangladeshi throw-away culture. Her monthly visits to family in Bangladesh’s main port city, Chittagong, had provided a constant reminder of the environmental degradation and the poverty and ignorance that fuels it. “I see the population and pollution growing every day, and am scared for the future, but these communities don’t care. They don’t care because they don’t understand the causes of their situation or the effects of their behaviour on it,” she says.

She was clear that a concerted campaign and better education was needed to change the nation’s throw-away culture. But she realised that governmental efforts alone would not change this.

Mohammad too recognised the iniquity in the throw-away culture but he seems to see economics as the root cause. “Dumping plastic has been illegal in Bangladesh from 2000, but people don’t comply because plastic is cheap,” he explains.

Since meeting in 2017 as Computer Science and Engineering undergraduates at the North South University in Dhaka, they have collaborated on a number of technologically-innovative projects. But, hearing them describe their design for a river purification project in India or their self-sustaining roof-top farm project in Dhaka, it is evident that it is not just the technology that excites them. They are clearly driven to make a difference for people and the planet by constructing culturally sensitive and human-centred technology. 

How can we expect people fighting for their next meal to recycle effectively without empowering them economically.”

They believe strongly that young people like them can, and must, steer the search for, and adoption of, new technologies to seed and develop a more sustainable world. That belief and their motivation has attracted other students and volunteers to join their venture which they called Green Beans.

With the precarious lives of the Dhaka waste collectors preying on their minds Green Beans aimed its next project at providing poor people in Dhaka with earning opportunities from recycling locally generated waste. And through the project, to change their mindset and behaviour around waste.

The resultant idea, Bottle Economy, combines blockchain-inspired technology with an accessible interface. It enables more value to be extracted from the plastic waste, and for more of this to be directed to the poor rather than intermediaries – a business concept that has been readily taken up by local shopkeepers and scavengers in urban and rural areas of Bangladesh.

“The Festival for Change was amazing. We entered with a basic idea and we left with a holistic approach to transformational change.”

It was while trying out its business concept in this way, that Green Beans’ attention was caught by an invitation to participate in a global online festival – Promoting Economic Pluralism’s 2020 Festival for Change.

Mohammad and Asma enrolled and entered their Bottle Economy project in the Festival Challenge. They were excited to meet people from different countries, generations and ways of life, all sharing their desire to bring about a more sustainable world. Searching for effective ways of tackling Bangladesh’s “huge and complex economic, social and environmental problems”, they were inspired by the wealth of change-making ideas, expertise and experience on show. And they welcomed the insights, know-how and support of their mentors in developing their proposal.

“The Festival for Change was amazing,” beams Mohammad. “We entered with a basic idea and we left with a holistic approach to transformational change.” 

“We are so thankful to our mentors,” says Asma. “They believed in us from the start and that motivated us to win,” adding: “Whatever it took.”  What it took included time-zone straddling, all-night sessions, and overcoming their trepidation at presenting their ideas to experts outside their discipline in a foreign language.

As the 2020 Festival for Change was finishing, the Green Beans’ business journey was already beginning. It is now busy protecting its intellectual property, setting up its enterprise, and pitching for pre-seed funding to pilot Bottle Economy more comprehensively. And Mohammad and Asma are seeking like-minded collaborators and business partners.

As their enterprise develops we hope that their Green Beans collaboration – that was sown by a Dhaka street scene and nurtured at the Festival for Change – will continue to flourish, blossom and grow.

Nicolette Boater

Nicolette is an innovative sustainable development adviser and researcher based in the Bristol area of the UK. She draws on a wealth of experience catalysing purposeful change, building stakeholder value …

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