Twenty years ago, Nargis Latif began Gul Bahao (Flow of Flowers) as a research project to propel Pakistan into the twenty-first century, and in doing so, she learned that industry depends on nature, and that business and manufacturing needed to change how they functioned in a way that did not damage nature while conducting business or making things. She began her endeavor in the same place other countries began their sustainability efforts: in the trash.
Pakistan is not the first country to falter under the weight of its refuse. Many will recall the barges packed with garbage roaming through the rivers of New York City in 1987 with no place to dump it before recycling was a thing, and before New York developed a comprehensive plan to deal with waste (which has not been, as of yet, entirely realized).
Lebanon’s beautiful Beirut and its surrounding countryside is lined with mountains — literally, mountains — of refuse, and the country is swiftly running out of nooks and crannies to stash the ongoing garbage stream. And you don’t even want to know about what’s going on with China and the garbage it generates.
But Ms. Latif looked at garbage and determined that a large part of it was plastic — one of the least environmentally-friendly substances because it takes so long to decompose, and when it does, it’s toxic, not to mention the harm it causes to land and oceanic plants and wildlife. Then there is the compromise of quality of life that occurs when people inhabit a contaminated environment.
So, what do you do with plastic in a region void of recycling technology? Probing further into the garbage, she discovered that not all plastic was dirty used garbage, and that there was an excess of industrial waste plastic that never saw use at all. It was product wrapping that the manufacturer deemed unusable because of imperfections, or there was clean plastic that was excess of the manufacturing process that ended up in the trash.
She proposed transforming plastic into building materials — most basically, building blocks that enabled economic, fast and modular shelters to serve the needs of impoverished and displaced people, and that was just for starters. With their shiny space-age appearance, the plastic structures stand out as icons of sustainability, and the plastic blocks are further utilized in fabricating beds, chairs, tables, and latrines. Waterproof and insulated, the blocks and their subsequent structures prove a very important point: waste has value — big value and enormous potential too.
There is nothing wasted in nature. Waste is a relative term. What is waste in one situation is raw material for another process. The foulest of waste — i.e human waste — is the best food (organic fertilizer ) for the most luscious of fruits. This is science.
— Nargis Latif
Ms. Latif did not come from a background familiar with rummaging through garbage, and at the onset of her efforts, she caught her affluent family off guard. Yet, by establishing a much-needed research organization with a flagship recycling effort, she placed sustainability on the radar of the Pakistani government and businesses as well as heighten awareness of environmental issues in the entire Eastern-Middle Eastern region gaining global media attention.
Her first call to action, Waste for Gold, a statement that highlights the untapped value and resource in what we discard and what sadly goes unused, follows her and Gul Bahao decades later. Often self-funded by her and her the organization’s board of managers, the research continues in issues of waste water and sewage, with notable success — her efforts inspired the Pakistani government to encourage and mandate the use of rain water-runoff water for agriculture/non-human use to lessen the consumption of clean water required for people. The government, institutions of higher learning, industrialists, and other environmental constituents internationally seek her and Gul Bahao for data and inspiration for pursuing Ms. Latif’s dream: rethinking waste as a valuable raw material and using waste toward ecological and economic sustainability.
Note: Opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, and are not necessarily held by the individuals, groups, or producers of media featured in this article.