Fellow Since 1994
This profile was prepared when Hossain Shahriar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.
The New Idea
Shahriar is helping the public to develop the understanding, desire and skills needed to identify and address environmental challenges. He advocates the use of environmentally friendly products while discouraging the use of plastic and polythene.Shahriar's strategy is distinctive in its focus on women - the largest consumers of these products - and children, who will determine the future treatment of the environment and are the most receptive to new ideas.
The rapid industrialization of Bangladesh over the past decade has created significant environmental problems. Among the most significant is the enormous volume of solid waste which is being produced. In Bangladesh, polythene and plastic are two of the most commonly used materials in consumer products; they are consumed widely by everyone from street vendors to middle class housewives. They are commonly used for wrapping food items such as meat, vegetables, bread and biscuits. According to an extensive survey conducted by Shahriar, in Dhaka alone, approximately four and a half million bags are dumped into the city every day. An average family in Dhaka throws out four polythene bags every day. Of these discarded bags, only 10 percent are left in trash receptacles. The remaining bags are typically thrown in the street or into drainage facilities. Since the polythene bags do not break down as paper bags might, they very frequently end up clogging drains and sewage system which in turn creates significant negative health effects. Even when the polythene bags are recycled, this recycling process creates harmful hydrogen cyanide gas which contributes to respiratory problems. The situation has continued unchecked because the public is unaware of the threat posed by their treatment of the environment. In 1983 there were only two polythene bag factories, but by the mid 1990s, this number had increased over 200. Polythene bags are used extensively because of their low cost and because of their practical nature. For example, plastic bags can protect contents from rain much better than a cloth bag might. Despite these advantages, if the public can be made aware of the serious environmental consequences of choices that they make in their everyday lives, usage or polythene bags and of other harmful day to day products could be significantly reduced. While there are many organizations with environmental focuses in Bangladesh, often these organizations do not attempt to change the lifestyle decisions that regular citizens make everyday which can have a profound impact on the environment.
Shahriar is working to re-shape the public's perception of the impact of their daily actions on the environment through his organization, ESDO (Environment and Social Development Organization). Shahriar has already achieved considerable success in his campaign against the use of plastics. His constant lobbying of parliament members has resulted in a ban on the production of polythene and plastic bags. However, because of lax enforcement of this ban, Shahriar concentrates much of his energy on the education of people regarding their usage of materials such as polythene and other common household products. He works to convince people that it is much more economical for to begin using cloth or jute bags which can typically be used for six months, unlike polythene bags which are ordinarily thrown out after one use. Shahriar's project-aimed primarily at women and children-utilizes informal discussions, pictures, posters, cartoons, door-to-door education and an environmental camp for youth to inform them about their individual effect on the environment. Although the project has initially been implemented in Dhaka, Shahriar believes that the responsible behavior he advocates can and will be emulated in rural areas.He has selected forty-two volunteers from fourteen neighborhoods and provided them with practical and theoretical training on pollution, plastics and other environmental problems and solutions. Shahriar aims to implement his program over a period of three years in four phases. During the first phase, volunteers will distribute posters, leaflets and stickers which promote environmental consciousness. In the second phase, the volunteers will provide information on polythene and plastic hazards. The third and fourth phases will stress seminars and group discussions. Shahriar's ultimate goal is for ordinary citizens to consider the environmental impact of their everyday decisions. The usage of plastic bags by ordinary citizens is one decision which Shahriar believes people can be convinced to eliminate through his education and discussion programs. Shahriar has also developed an environmental camp for youth which aims to generate a sense of awareness amongst young people about the effect that people's everyday decisions can have on the environment. These camps typically consist of 20 to 25 children aged eight to twelve accompanied by their parents. Excursions during these camps range from botanical gardens to zoos to agricultural fields. He hopes to develop an appreciation for nature amongst the youth through their participation in outdoor activities which will increase their motivation to change their daily routines which negatively affect the environment. He also is working to motivate youth to choose career paths which include environmental conservation and management.
As a journalist, Shahriar reported on topics ranging from politics to international development and the social sciences. Since childhood, however, he has been especially interested in nature and environmental issues.Shahriar initially became interested in issues with polythene bags during a trip to Australia. When buying some fruit in a market in Melbourne, Shahriar was given a paper bag by a shopkeeper. When he requested a polythene bag, which was what he had been accustomed to in Bangladesh, the shopkeeper replied that she was not able to use the polythene bag because of its environmental hazards. After this initial exposure, Shahriar educated himself about the environmental consequences of using polythene bags and learned that in other Asian cities such as Bangkok, significant strides were being made in eliminating these bags. Since this time he has expanded his work to identify the many substances that people use in their everyday lives which are harmful to the environment and could be reduced or eliminated. Shahriar is an active member of several professional and activist groups, including the Forum of Environmental Journalists, Like Minded Environmental Activists Group, Bangladesh Environment Development Communicators and the Press Club. Over the years, he has gathered extensive information, reports and materials dealing with environmental issues from organizations all over the world. With this background of knowledge, experience, and connections, Shahriar has been able to make an effective transition into full-time advocacy.