Forget polythene!
12:00 AM, April 08, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:30 AM, April 08, 2018

Forget polythene!

Scientist invents biodegradable alternative from jute

A Bangladeshi scientist has synthesised a polymer from jute fibre which can be used to create a kind of bag that works, looks and feels like a polythene bag but without the negative environmental impact.

Dr Mubarak Ahmad Khan, chief scientific officer at Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation took six years to complete the process. His hard work has opened brand new avenues for jute, once known as the golden fibre.

Now different types of jute based packaging bags are being produced on a pilot basis using the polymer at the state-run Latif Bawani Jute Mills in Demra under the “Sonali Bag” initiative of the Ministry of Textiles and Jute which began in May of last year.

Mubarak named his discovery “jute polymer”. It is produced by extracting cellulose from jute fibre.

Despite being biodegradable, the polymer is water and air resistant. At the same time, its texture is almost the same as polythene bags.

Furthermore, the material is durable and can support more weight than the conventionally used polythene bags.

“Jute polymer can take one and a half times more load than polythene. Although the polymer doesn't absorb water, it decomposes within three to four months under soil,” Mubarak, the Bangladesh Science Academy Award 2010 recipient, said. 

Polythene is a petroleum-based synthetic substance. It is used as packaging material due to its thermo-mechanical properties and low cost, but it is not biodegradable. Disposal of plastic waste has become a serious problem now, said Dr Mubarak.

“On the other hand, jute polymer is made of a cellulose-based substance and perishable. The production cost of the polymer is now high but if we can go for large-scale production, it will be [as widely] available as polythene.”

Environmentalists hailed the invention and called to start its commercial production to reduce the use of polythene.

On January 1, 2012, the government banned the manufacturing, marketing and usage of polythene shopping bags in the capital. A nationwide ban was made effective from March 31 of the same year.

However, polythene was still being traded and used throughout the country due to inadequate enforcement of the ban and absence of cost effective environment-friendly alternatives.

Dr Mubarak, also the former director general of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, said “I started working on producing the polymer six years ago, and finally became successful in 2015. 

PRODUCTION OF JUTE POLYMER

Dr Mubarak said for producing the polymer, first cellulose is extracted from jute fibre. The cellulose undergoes surface modification to induce water solubility. Then it is blended with biodegradable binder and dissolved in warm water to make a viscous solution.

Finally, the polymer solution is poured in a casting tray and allowed to air dry at 40 degrees Celsius and 40 percent relative humidity.

The biodegradable sheets are then dislodged from the casting tray and the bags are made by conventional sealing, the scientist said.

“Jute polymer is environment friendly. It can replace polythene...and such product can enhance the country's image,” he said.

The government-run jute mill at Demra now produces enough polymers for making 2,000 bags per day. The project authorities store the polymer in the factory. It is occasionally used to make bags which are distributed to different government offices as souvenirs, Mubarak said.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

The product is yet to become commercially feasible with its cost of production currently double that of polythene. This results in a higher selling price.

It is one and a half times more expensive to produce jute polymer bags compared to polythene bags, Mubarak said, adding that costs could be reduced if production was scaled-up.

“Now we are producing the polymer through a semi-automatic machine. But, jute polymer-made bags will be available among all if we can go for its commercial production using an automatic machine,” Mubarak said.

The government has already taken an initiative to establish a plant equipped with automatic machines to produce the polymer. Once operational, the plant will produce enough to make seven to ten tonnes of bags per day, he said.

He added that different local and international companies showed interest in buying the new bags.

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