In some good news for the country, a scientist, who also discovered jute polymer and is behind the invention of "Sonali Bag", has come up with a method of making biodegradable protective gear in a promising solution to the additional environmental pollution during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr Mubarak Ahmad Khan, scientific adviser to Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation, came up with the material, now at the conceptual stage, to prepare personal protective equipment (PPE) which is biodegradable and non-toxic.
Indiscriminate disposal of hazardous Covid-19 related plastic waste could cause significant environmental pollution as well as potentially help spread infectious diseases, said experts.
The scientist said the main components of this PPE are cellulose, extracted from jute fibre, and chitosan -- a natural fibrous material obtained from the hard outer skeleton of shellfish such as crab, lobster, and shrimp.
Both jute and shrimp are easily available materials in Bangladesh and the extraction processes of cellulose and chitosan and preparation of the biopolymers are environmentally friendly and cost-effective, he added.
The biodegradable component of the PPE -- as of the Sonali Bag -- is the cellulose, and the chitosan will protect from Covid-19 and other viruses, said Mubarak.
Chitosan has been shown to provide anti-viral immune protection and is a component of vaccines and other drugs, he said.
In 2015, Mubarak invented "jute polymer" and used it to create a type of bag that works, looks, and feels like a polythene bag but without the negative environmental impact.
Currently, several types of jute-based packaging bags using the polymer are being produced on a pilot basis at the state-run Latif Bawany Jute Mills in Demra, under the "Sonali Bag" initiative of the Ministry of Textiles and Jute.
Mubarak said the biodegradable PPE will be easier to decontaminate and dispose of as the material dissolves in water within seven days and in soapy water in three minutes, during which most viruses are killed. The tensile strength of the cellulose-chitosan polymer is also 1.8 times higher than that of polypropylene, he added.
Mubarak, former director-general of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, said he received approval from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the U.S. last week.
"We are going to test this new concept at Shishu Hospital shortly," he said.
He said he will also work with the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) to prepare the protective gear.
"Widespread public health campaigns with clear instructions about how to replace petroleum-based non-degradable PPE with eco-friendly PPE will be needed. Therefore, we proposed to develop a manufacturing system along with a recycling system to reduce environmental pollution and the cost of producing new materials," Mubarak said.
"Otherwise, plastic waste from PPE will be another epidemic shortly."
In addition to biodegradable PPE, the polymer has other possible applications such as packaging and biodegradable shrouds for dead bodies, he added.
Plastic waste on the rise during Covid-19 outbreak
Around 14,500 tonnes of hazardous plastic waste had been produced from the single-use surgical face masks, gloves, hand sanitiser bottles, and polythene bags in the first month of the shutdown, according to a recent study by the Environment and Social Development Organisation (ESDO).
About 11.2 percent of this waste constitutes surgical face masks, 21 percent polythene-made regular gloves, 20 percent surgical gloves, 40.9 percent single-use polythene shopping bags, and 6.4 percent empty bottles of hand sanitiser.
The study, titled "Covid-19 Pandemic Pushes Single Use Plastic Waste Outbreak: No Management, No Protection: Pose High Health and Environmental Risk", surveyed more than 570 individuals online and over telephone between March 26 and April 25.