Column by Mahfuz Anam: A convenience that is killing us
Using plastic is very convenient. But now it is posing a threat to our healthy living.
A few days back, I was cleaning my study and decided to discard some old plastic music and film discs, and asked my house help to throw them away. He said without a moment's hesitation, "Don't worry, I will throw them into the lake." Totally shocked by his suggestion, I reprimanded him for the idea, but at the same time, I realised several things.
How deeply are we aware of nature's plentiful gifts that sustain our life, and how much are we polluting them? Are we at all aware how fertile our land is—how, almost effortlessly, its dense vegetation replenishes our existence, and how neglectful we are of it? Do we ever stop to think about what our rivers mean to us?
Millions of years of deposits of sediments brought down from the Himalayas is what Bangladesh is. Our land, people and culture are a gift of our rivers. We are so proud of our folk music, but can we imagine our Bhatiali and other folk songs without the rivers? The young votaries of much of Tagore's and Nazrul's songs will miss out on their intrinsic beauty as we have destroyed most of the nature's gift that they wrote about.
If today's Bangladesh is a story of great economic strides, generating justifiable self-confidence, it is also a story of destroying nature's precious gifts that should worry us deeply, and raise serious concerns as to the future viability of our ecosystem.
Though saving the environment is the most crucial challenge for Bangladesh, how many of us really know about it, care about it, and are willing to change our behaviour for it?
On December 20, 2021, the World Bank released a report on the situation of plastic pollution in Bangladesh. We had a vague idea about the threat that plastic waste posed, but what the report reveals amounts to a fundamental threat to our future growth and prosperity.
The rising figures for plastic waste over the last 15 years is quite alarming, but the real threat comes from the effects of that pollution on a country like ours.
Bangladesh's basic features are its population and its intimate relationship with nature—especially its rivers. According to the latest United Nations figures (as stated by Worldometers), around 165 million people—which is expected to rise to 172 million by 2025—live within 130,000sq-km (the area seems to have decreased from 144,000sq-km) as of 2020, which makes for a density of population of 1,265 per sq-km, one of the densest per capita human habitation in the world.
What does such a huge population living in a very small land area actually mean? Simply put, it means that those who live in it must take extremely good care of the soil, water and air—the environment in general—so that it can continue to nourish us as best as it can.
What the World Bank study reveals—and what we need to worry about seriously—is how plastic, which is thrown away indiscriminately after use, degrades over time into microplastics (less than five mm in length) and are released into the environment, posing significant threat to humans and ecosystems. This non-biodegradable material is entering our food chain and literally throttling nature's process of regeneration. Because they never dissolve, these plastic wastes destroy the natural qualities of the soil, with the effect that with time, the latter loses its regenerative capacity. Just consider the impact of such an eventuality on our food security.
Then comes the question of using the rivers as the dumping grounds for many pollutants—chemicals, solid waste, sewage, industrial waste, and now plastic. I remember reading a report sometime ago, that when an attempt was made to dredge the Karnaphuli River, the machine was rendered inoperable due to a thick layer of plastic waste, which over time formed the top layer of the riverbed. Can we imagine the condition of the river when its bed turns into a layer of plastic? This is now happening to three rivers that surround Dhaka city—Balu, Turag and Dhaleshwari—whose shorelines are being encroached upon and waters being poisoned.
The World Bank report elaborates the nature of the plastic waste problem. The national per capita consumption of plastic rose from three kg to nine kg in 15 years—from 2005 to 2020. However, the per capita use in Dhaka in 2020 is 24kg. The daily plastic waste in Dhaka is 646 tonnes, of which 310.7 tonnes go to landfills, 77.5 tonnes into canals and rivers, 17.3 tonnes into the drains, and 240.5 tonnes are recycled.
According to this report, 77.5 tonnes of plastic are being poured daily into our canals and rivers, which makes for 2,325 tonnes a month and 27,900 tonnes over a year. Take the case of drains into which 17.3 tonnes are being dumped daily. No wonder most of the drains in Dhaka are clogged, and the slightest rain leads to waterlogging in many areas of the city. Dumping plastic waste into drains is the surest way of making them non-functional. We are pumping 646 tonnes daily into landfills, which may lie behind the rising cases of tilting of high rise buildings in Dhaka and other cities, not to mention affecting the quality of soil. Plastic-ridden landfills pose a threat to our rapid urbanisation.
An interesting figure to take note of is, while our annual national per capita consumption stands at nine kg, it is 100kg in Europe. Yet, we are among the worst affected countries simply because of the mismanagement of the waste. Here is an area that needs urgent and concerted attention.
Thin single-use plastic bags account for most of the waste. We can start addressing the issue of plastic pollution with this one item. Ironically, Bangladesh is the first country in the world to ban use of plastic shopping bags, done back in 2002. But this pioneering move amounted to nothing, even though a High Court order was issued in support of this. That innovative policy fell by the wayside under the influence of plastic bag producers and the proclivity of our consumers to prefer such bags over the bulkier jute bags and easily tearable paper bags. A UNEP study from 2018 revealed that selective banning, frequent change of policies, no control at the manufacturing end, and no incentive to the public to change their habits led to the failure of these early initiatives. The government's Eighth Five-Year plan (2020-2025), however, takes a comprehensive view of the problem and has suggested some holistic approaches towards its solution.
This daily has been pursuing stories on river pollution and encroachment for over 25 years. The slow progress in protecting the rivers, the authorities looking the other way when big and powerful business conglomerates occupy rivers to build factories, and the bureaucratic web that stifles actions to protect the environment, do not portray an encouraging picture of the government's seriousness in containing environment pollution in general, and tackling the plastic menace in particular.
This story should suffice: After decades of polluting the Buriganga through the tanneries at Hazaribagh, the government decided to shift them to Savar, after building a tannery estate there. This estate was to have all modern facilities, including a central effluent treatment plant (ETP) to treat all of the toxic wastes of all the industries located there. The estate idea started in 2004. Nothing happened till 2009, and it was finally completed in 2016. In the meantime, the Buriganga continued to be polluted with toxic waste. The tender for the ETP was floated in 2012, signed in 2016, and the work was completed by a Chinese company and handed over to Bangladesh in June 2020. On a trial run during the handover, it was discovered that the ETP facility did not remove all the toxic elements, like chromium, arsenic, other heavy metals and the saline content in the water. In other words, the ETP plant was NOT going to stop river pollution—the very purpose behind setting it up. (So, why did we take over the project?) Meanwhile, by 2016-17, all the factories were relocated to the Savar estate by a government order, and have been polluting the Dhaleshwari River ever since.
Here, we have a case of being back to zero after nearly two decades of time wasted, spending nearly Tk 1,000 crore on the ETP, and untold crores on environmental degradation and financial burden on the factories because of the relocation.
So after killing the Buriganga with toxic pollutants, we are proceeding full speed in destroying the biodiversity and marine life of this new river. So miserable is the performance of the Savar estate and the central ETP that last month, the parliamentary committee on environment recommended that the Savar tannery estate be closed down due to its devastating impact on its surrounding areas.
With such an inspirational story about our concern for the environment, how effectively we will control the plastic menace is an open question.
Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.