Properly managing plastic and polythene waste is one of the biggest challenges facing the 21st century. They have become ubiquitous and can be found at the deepest point of the ocean to the highest peak to the remotest island.

The world has not made much progress when it comes to managing plastic waste. What is worrying is that a very small amount of plastic is ever recycled.

It is especially challenging in one of the world's largest refugee camps in Bangladesh's coastal district of Cox's Bazar where more than 1.1 million Rohingyas are staying. Unplanned makeshift houses mushroomed after trees were felled and hills razed.

It is unclear how much waste is produced at the camps daily, but a 2018 survey at Teknaf's Leda makeshift camp, housing 21,000 forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals, gave some idea about the enormity of the problem.

It found that refugees at this camp produce 3.3 tonnes of waste, including organic and inorganic and unrecyclable ones. The survey found that the refugees dumped wastes, including plastic bottles and polythene bags, in the open for the lack of disposal sites and recycling options.

Carelessly discarded polythene bags and plastic bottles are major causes of concern as they clog the drains in the camp sites housing people beyond capacity. During rain, they block drains, causing water stagnation and serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Humanitarian organisations are trying to find ways to cut plastic pollution in the camps but there has been little progress.

Looking for a sustainable solution, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has set up a plastic recycling plant in the vicinity of Leda camp in collaboration with Practical Action. The plant, in operation since April 1 this year, is the first of its kind.

"Plastic waste is a growing problem," IOM spokesman George McLeod said. "We're committed to reducing the environmental footprint of the refugee camps."

The collected waste is first cleaned and then cut into flakes that are later melted and brought out as plastic threads. In the next step, the threads are cut into pellets and finally given cubic shapes by a molding machine.

Kazi Rashed Hyder, the programme manager of Practical Action, said the country is in dire need of a system that would help manage plastic wastes while ensuring health and safety for people.

The existing infrastructure is a first-ever trial project of such kind undertaken by Practical Action in Humanitarian concept.

"Such an environment-friendly initiative should be introduced at all camps as well as in the local areas," Hyder said.

So far, the plant only produces alphabet blocks used as learning material by Rohingya children, but plans are afoot to diversify operations, officials said. Despite challenges and limitations, the plant offers a good solution to minimising plastic wastes, IOM said.

"I think it's a tremendous project," said McLeod. "In addition to reducing plastic waste, it's teaching Bangladeshi people vocational skills that'll outlast the humanitarian response. I hope it'll be replicated elsewhere."

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