Challenges and opportunities of plastic pollution management
Plastic and plastic goods sector in Bangladesh began its journey in 1960s and has become an emerging sector. The convenience and availability of plastic products especially PVC bags less than 55 micron—growth of which sharply increased over the years—has helped the industry grow. Plastic industry represents a significant sub sector of the Bangladesh economy contributing to income generation and employment. On average, the growth rate of the plastic manufacturing industry is 20 percent per year (IDLC, 2015) and the growth ever since is rising. Bangladesh has been exporting plastic products including plastic waste since 2015-16. Bangladesh exported USD 477 million in 2018-19, out of which direct export was USD 120 million and indirect export was USD 357 million. Bangladesh imports around 0.4 million tons of plastic raw materials annually which includes HDPE, LDPE, PP, PET, PVC, PC and PS. Among these, PVC is the most toxic and most harmful form of plastic. An estimated 0.8 million ton plastic waste is generated per year. About 36 percent of the total plastic waste generated is recycled, while 39 percent is landfilled, and the rest 25 percent is considered leakage or unattended and finds its way into marine environment (Waste Concern, 2019). Out of this plastic waste, approximately 10 percent is single used plastic which cannot be recycled. As a result, these end up in landfill and water bodies.
The actual quantity of plastic waste cannot be accurately ascertained as the information on trans-boundary pollution of single used plastics flowing from India to Bangladesh is not available. The plastic pollution of Bay of Bengal should ideally include both Bangladesh and India and the quantity will be much higher than national estimates. Micro and nano plastics have been found to enter tissues of animals ultimately getting into the food chain which is hazardous. Under Bangladesh Environmental Conservation Act (BECA) 1994, section 6(A) has a section entailing ban on polythene bags, which only curtails polythene bags which are less than 55micron in thickness. The High Court recently directed the authorities concerned to ban single-use plastic products in coastal areas, hotels, motels and restaurants across the country as they are health and environmental hazards. Effective implementation of this law could not be implemented fully due to lack of manpower in the Department of Environment (DOE).
TYPES OF PLASTIC AND MOST USED RESINS
Most used varieties of plastic can be divided into seven types. Plastic resins have different levels of toxicity. Among them, few are relatively safer than the other types of plastic.
MAIN CONCERNS OF PLASTIC POLLUTION
Plastic, considered the best invention of all time, has proven to be a curse in recent times due to over production and consumption. The ever-increasing plastic production, consumption and waste generation are escalating the threat to marine and terrestrial ecosystem and has transformed its most attractive features into a curse. However, pollution has received attention during the last 10 years, after polluting ecosystems and ruining the aesthetics of seas and negative impacts on marine species. Most of the plastic materials have attributes to be used only once, therefore plastic packaging materials constitutes half of the world plastic waste (UNEP, 2018). Major amount of this waste is produced in Asia whereas America, Japan and European Union represent the highest producers of per capita plastic waste. However, only nine percent of this nine billion tons of plastic has been recycled (UNEP, 2018). Most plastics are non-biodegradable and break down into tiny fragments known as micro plastics.
Plastic pollution is one of the leading causes of marine pollution, killing a million of sea birds every year. According to a research in Florida, plastic degrades slowly if exposed to ultraviolet radiation, but the rate of degradation is so slow that it might require years to reach the half-life of a single plastic disposable cup. Further, plastic producers are adding ultraviolet stabilisers in plastic to increase its life expectancy and is just intensifying the problem. Plastic bags are often swallowed by marine creatures. A key hazard of untreated plastic waste is that plastic packages disintegrate into microplastic. Research revealed that the toxic substances added while manufacturing plastics get absorbed in tissues of animals, eventually contaminating the human food chain (The State of Plastics, 2018)
PLASTIC INDUSTRY IN BANGLADESH: A BRIEF OVERVIEW
Plastic and plastic goods sector in Bangladesh began its journey in the 1960s and has become an emerging sector that exported USD 477 million in 2018-19. Export has grown (including deemed export) at more than 21.8 percent every year between 2013 and 2017 (pwc, 2018). Value addition in manufacturing plastic products hovers around 51 percent to 70 percent (Reform Policy Paper on Plastic sector presented on 1st SGGWC meeting of BUILD). The domestic market size of this sector is BDT 300 billion.
The 7th Five Year Plan identifies this sector for its potential as a diversified product and a backward linkage for textile and light engineering industry. The government tries to support the industry by offering 10 percent cash incentive on plastic export. About 5,000 companies, mostly SMEs, operate in the sector providing employment of 1.2 million people. Most of the industries are located in Dhaka (65 percent) and the remaining are in Chattogram (20 percent), Narayanganj (10 percent) Khulna, Comilla, Bogura and Rajshahi (BPGMEA). There are 250 to 300 exporting firms.
Previously, Bangladesh mainly focused on exporting PVC bags (H.S. code 3923) and Plastic Waste (H.S. code 3915). Recently the export of these products declined owing to, inter alia, the ban on import of plastic wastes by Chinese government in 2018, since China is the main export destination of Bangladeshi plastics. Meanwhile, export of other plastic products has shown a significant growth over the years. The declining export of plastic waste (shown in Table 1) will result in increased plastic pollution in the country.
The major export destinations of Bangladeshi plastics are China, the UK, EU countries, the USA, Canada, etc. The leading brands in plastic sector in Bangladesh are KDS, DAF, RFL, Bengal, Partex, Talukdar, Unique and Anwar. Bangladesh is mostly producing low end products and technology adoption is also not very high. The manufacturers mainly concentrate on capturing domestic market. Around 0.4 million tons of plastic raw materials are annually imported to Bangladesh. Of them, 20 percent of the imported materials go into plastic packaging.
IMPORT AND EXPORT SCENARIO OF PLASTIC IN BANGLADESH
The plastic industry represents a significant sub-sector in the Bangladesh economy. Plastic based products have become a significant segment of the manufacturing industry of the country. However, having no polyolefin industry of its own, the country is solely dependent on imported raw materials. Currently, plastic consumption consists of imported polymers and local recycled plastic waste of about 750,000 tons. The country saved USD 600 million import of virgin plastic in the year 2010 by recycling 60 percent of the post use plastics (Bangladesh Waste Database, 2014). Import of plastic raw materials represent 0.26 percent of world imports, ranking 59 in the world. China, Saudi Arabia, Thailand are main suppliers of plastic to Bangladesh.
PLASTICS ALL AROUND US
We are surrounded by plastic in all its different forms. Plastic are complex sets of substances. They vary in their strengths, looks, hardness, colours, shape, flexibilities and capabilities of bending. They may have different stretch-abilities and capabilities of extension and utilities depending on the user and their defined needs. Starting from thin films, polythene-made disposable bags to bricks for roads and pillars and pipes for constructions, thick and large containers for holding water in households to chemicals in laboratories are made of plastics. Different plastics are used for different purposes. Their utilities and options of use are ever expanding. One of the greatest uses is in the multiple shapes, sizes and hardness for the packaging industry across the world. As home delivery, electronics shopping, global imports and exports keep increasing rapidly, the use of plastic is going to be expanding rapidly and in higher volumes.
PLASTICS IN WORKPLACE AND HOME
When I was planning to write this article for The Daily Star, I had requested input from my colleagues, just to clarify what plastic is and how many types are there and who are using it? I suggested that we just have a look around. I soon realised that the frame of any spectacle and the end of the holder of the frame was soft cover of plastic. The sole of my shoes were made of plastic. My watch and the belt of the watch were two types of plastics. The comb with which I manage my hair and the holder of my scissors and top of the stapler, the buttons of my shirts and zipper of my trousers—all were made of plastic. My swing chair and the table were covered with plastics. The frames of the photographs and posters on the walls and the screws that hold them were completely or partially composed of different types of plastic. Some of my colleagues in my preparatory meeting had their ornaments of plastics as were their belts, clips on their hair, the ear pieces of their mobile and ear phones—had plastic components.
PLASTIC DISCOVERING GAME
If we play this plastic discover game, we will soon realise that we are surrounded by plastics. The use of plastic is only going to increase with the increasing computer and digital revolution rapidly entering the fourth and fifth digital technology revolution. In the field of medical advancement and health treatment, every tablet, liquid or gels, powders are packed in plastic, either as containers or packaging materials. In an intensive care unit, the doctors, nurses, supply staff cover their heads, faces, hands with plastic and many of their instruments were mostly plastic. The large electronic detectors and machines, many of the plastic and containers of medicine, the injection-syringes, their slippers and aprons, all have significant amount of plastics in them.
THE THREE KEY PHENOMENA
The above discussions are just examples to show that we are in a plastic dominated world. The problem and the destructive mess, we are in now, is a result of three different phenomena. The first is the one-time use, non-biodegradable plastics such as the shopping bags, film materials which are thrown around and spread worldwide. The second issue is, the plastics those are not recycled. Most plastic materials can be recycled with appropriate and available technology. The society must value the need for quality recycling and must be willing to pay the right commercial price. The third issue is human behaviour: our lack of knowledge and indifference towards pollution. There has been increasing awareness in Scandinavian and Japanese cultures, for example. But there is no society that has integrated the responses to the above three issues.
Compared to the rapid rate at which plastics have penetrated into millions of uses in all cultures hardly any effort has been made to mobilise the society for limiting their harmful uses, increasing recycling and enhancing awareness of types of plastic, their capacity to harm the society, health of humans and other species. These knowledge systems in all aspects are to be integrated in different levels of education.
FLOATING ISLAND OF PLASTIC IN THE OCEAN
The greatest threat is from single use plastic that are thrown away, and the different shapes and sizes of un-recycled plastic materials. All these end up through landfill to water bodies, and through canals and rivers finally in the seas. It is now known the gyres of the ocean current in the north central Pacific Ocean has created a floating island of plastic particles that is of the size of the State of Taxes in the USA, and more than six times larger than Bangladesh in terms of area. Such intensive pollution in ocean is affecting and threatening all species of ocean and marine fish, animals and other species. In turn, these are entering into the human food chain. The micro and nano-plastic, particularly below millionth and billionth of one meter respectively, is found to enter the tissues of animals, marine species and humans and pose serious health problems. It has been reported that by the year 2050, the ocean of the world will have more pollutants, mostly plastics components larger than the total weight of fish in the oceans.
Thus, immediate and appropriate actions will have to be taken by all, including our responsibility as Bangladeshi citizens and government and non-government agencies.
Better science-based policies, strategies and action plans, education and social mobilisation, attribution of responsibilities to appropriates agencies are urgent steps that we must take. Though some actions have been taken they are not enough, it is now high time that we made plastic use and abuse and solution of plastic pollution a major national issue. It is to be remembered that affluent and city people use more plastic than the rural poor people in Bangladesh. Leadership is in the hands of the rich and elite group and they must act now to stop the menace.
DIGITISATION REVOLUTION AND CHALLENGES OF ELECTRONICS, PLASTICS AND E-WASTE MANAGEMENT
Most elements of our society including the global population, communication, business, education, science and research—all are going through a major electronic and digital revolution. For the global population who are fortunate enough to have electricity, access to mobile phone and computers probably spend more time with these machines per day than almost any other activity except for sleeping. This revolution has four major components: (i) Research and development; (ii) Software (the knowledge and network systems); (iii) Hardware (machines and their packaging); and (iv) Business, marketing and access.
Overall, access is increasing and costs are decreasing in the digital world. The hardware components of this phenomenon are backed by many new modes of development and growth in materials science, research and innovation. Appropriate metal products, rare-earths materials and various forms of plastic used in devices, containers and supporting electrical components, packaging and transportation are most important. Plastic has played a key role in enabling the enhancement of efficient use, portability, protection of the systems such as cell phones, tablets, laptops, microcomputers to mega computers for huge data use and running big systems such as weather and climate, large global business systems, worldwide publications, and global communication. In a way, plastic components have been a great support for the growth, security and increasing use of the electronic revolutionary products.
E-WASTE DUMPING AND MANAGEMENT
As we enter into greater use of computers, tablets, mobile phones, memory sticks etc., the life-span of products is getting shorter which need to be replaced by new products. This is giving rise to a newer waste management challenge of electronic wastes. Thus, e-waste is becoming an important industry as it is highly polluting in nature with metals, and strong and durable plastic. In a country like Bangladesh we are in the early stages of this. A primitive form of early artisan-based waste management is emerging where untrained traditional and indigenous groups are trying to extract important metals such as gold and mostly unaware of the critical value of rare earths and other pollutants. The amount of e-waste is increasing and along with it plastics are being dumped without any processing or recovery for potential future use. These non-biodegradable plastics have an extremely long life and enter the marine chain through rivers and the seas. Finally, parts of these enter the human food chain, where the plastics are compounded by other metals and electronic components.
Some advanced countries have attempted to dump these used computers in developing country schools, basically as a hidden way of exporting their e- wastes. This was not well received by many developing countries. On the other hand, the penetration of computers and particularly cell phones is increasing all over the world. Bangladesh particularly has a great usage of cell phone even by the underprivileged people.
Further, Bangladesh is the global leader in producing solar home systems and presently 5.5 million poor households have been connected with lights by solar home systems serving over 22 million people. The best co-benefit of the solar home system for the poor has been a source of charging mobile phone batteries; these have increased access to mobile phones in the country, particularly for the poor families.
Bangladesh needs to consider seriously developing a better understanding of the e-waste magnitude, processes, risks, management potential, recycling and recovery of precious components and management of the plastics in the electronic industry.
Bangladesh must encourage greater use, coverage and a digital development as a part of the declared government policy. However, e-waste issues must also be taken seriously and urgently before the problem goes out of hand.
TRANS-BOUNDARY PLASTIC POLLUTION
The overall marine pollution in Bangladesh is significantly larger as we are traversed by the three major river systems of Asia, namely the Ganges, the Brammaputra and the Meghna river system. Since we are at the lower end and are the lower riparian of both China and India, the two major polluters of electronic industries, the country is facing trans-boundary river pollution including plastic waste pollution. These two world powers are engaged in expansive electronic industries. They are the greatest contributors to marine pollution. Bangladesh bears much of the marine pollution emanating from these two countries. There is an urgent need to develop a tripartite understanding and agreement on how to reduce marine plastic and electronic pollution along with other types of pollution in the three key river systems and subsequent pollution in Bay of Bengal. In this, we have to incorporate seasonality and the high variation of water flows in the trans-boundary rivers round the year.
CIRCULAR ECONOMY FOR TACKLING PLASTIC POLLUTION
A circular economy is an emerging and innovative approach for tackling plastic pollution through technological improvement, local innovation, trade, business and employment generation. It could both maximise the benefits of plastics and minimise their ill effects on environment, human health and ecosystems through measures such as producing plastics from plants rather than fossil fuels; redesigning products to cut waste and make them last; encouraging recycling and reuse; and using plastic wastes as resources.
Traditionally plastic pollution has been tackled after it has happened, through clean-up efforts, but the only solution lies in addressing its root causes. These lie in the dominant "take, make, waste" linear economy, fuelled by large amounts of cheap, accessible energy and other resources, and producing things designed to be disposable. The circular economy, by contrast, aims to use resources for as long as possible, extracting as much value from them as is practicable, and then, when they do reach the end of their lives, to recover and regenerate products and materials. It aims to design out waste and hazardous materials in favour of such restoration and regeneration.
Gustavo Fonseca of Global Environmental Facility (GEF), in their recent report on Plastic and Circular Economy Solution, 2019 has informed that GEF's Small Grants Programme, implemented by UNDP, has been providing technical and financial support to projects led by civil society organisations and communities to test innovative approaches and practices for plastic waste management through a circular economy approach, which promotes closed-loop production and consumption. Such innovative practices include promoting "reduce, reuse, and recycle" plastics through material engineering and product design, shifting consumer use and behaviour, and developing sound approaches to waste collection and management.
Technological improvement, investment and marketing are the key elements for local innovations, which can play an essential role in plastic pollution management through circular economy approaches, which could prove critical for long-term sustainable development. In Bangladesh, particularly in the large cities including Dhaka, poor women and children collect used plastic materials and sell those items to small business enterprises, who clean those plastics wastes and package those to sell to the small industries for recycling. The small industries then prepare plastic products, particularly plastic chairs and household utensils which are again sold in the market. It has been learned from an interview of BBC with small traders of plastic goods from Dhaka that they export the semi-processed plastic wastes to China and in the USA. Thus, the collection, processing and trading of plastic wastes have created employment for the poor and small traders. There is need for further study on circular economy and management of plastic pollution in Bangladesh.
LEGAL ASPECTS OF PLASTICS PRODUCTION AND USES
There are environmental laws and acts in Bangladesh for regulating environmental protection and pollution reduction. Unfortunately, out of all the environmental acts only one section of a particular act is allocated for plastic products. Under Bangladesh Environmental Conservation Act (BECA), section 6(A) has a section entailing ban on polythene bags, which only curtail polythene bags less than 55 micron in thickness and the rest are free to be produced, consumed and disposed. Apart from having a separate section of plastic, concerns about plastic pollution does not get reflected in other environmental laws. An example can be cited from acts concerning aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems; laws concerning water resources does not have any section entailing plastic cleaning in waterways, neither does it have any penalty assigned for polluting tourist spots.
As specified in the BECA 2002, anyone who violates the law on polythene bag and consumes, produces, or markets polythene will be held guilty and given penalty of Tk. 50000 or one year of imprisonment. Nevertheless, the penalty assigned for producing, marketing and consuming polythene bags is partially implemented due to lack of manpower of DOE to enforce it.
RECENT LEGAL MEASURES ON SINGLE USE PLASTICS IN BANGLADESH
Bangladesh being the first country on sanctioning a law on polythene bags, has failed to implement and control polythene pollution over the years. However, the optimistic judiciary body of the country recently expressed its concern on single-use plastic products in coastal areas, hotels, motels and restaurants across and the associated health and environmental hazards. Further the High Court has ordered the executive body to ensure proper ban on single use plastic products particularly those which are regular in use. This list of products banned by high court include, drinking straws, cotton buds, cigarette butts, food packaging, food containers, bottles, plates, plastic cutlery and plastic bags.
CONCLUSION AND WAY FORWARD
It is evident that the demands of plastic products will rise in the country in the coming years. Therefore, abating plastic pollution will be one of the major challenges. This can be done through vigorous regulatory regime, encouraging segregation of plastic waste among the users and increasing the capacity of municipalities to collect the maximum possible quantity of solid waste compared to the real generation of solid waste. The awareness raising drive for segregating plastic waste by users should be increased at all levels including individual, family, community and institutional level of medical, electronic and plastic wastes.
The government of Bangladesh should encourage the plastic industry and the sectoral actors for recycling, regeneration and reuse toward better pollution reduction. This would need technological and local innovation, positive engagement of actors and investment in the sector. Plastic industry and recycling of plastic should be modernised and formalised in the country through public-private partnership (PPP) approach. We appreciate the most recent High Court Order for banning single use plastic within the next one year. Appropriate legal measures and enforcement by relevant agencies would be required for controlling plastic production, processing, trading, uses and re-use and ultimately pollution reduction to save human health and ecosystems including the soil, water bodies, rivers and oceans. The government should take proactive actions in this regard through positive engagement of actors and stakeholders. The government and all relevant actors including industry, private sector, traders, research and scientific community and collectors of plastic would need enhancement in technical and management capacity in this regard.
The government should take proactive actions in plastic pollution management instead of reactive measures (banning polythene use in early 2000, which failed) with alternative options for trade, business and employment. Circular economy offers opportunities for tackling plastic pollution through technological improvement, local innovation and employment generation in Bangladesh. Trans-boundary plastic pollution through river flow is a big concern for Bangladesh as a lower riparian country. We must start discussion with neighbouring countries for proper management and pollution reduction from plastic in an integrated way urgently. Further, digital revolution has created huge opportunity for Bangladesh and at the same time poses serious threat of e-waste management and plastic pollution reduction. These are to be taken seriously from the initial stage. Bangladesh would need local and global solutions for these with investment, effective innovation and technology transfer.
For Bangladesh, the plastic industry and innovation should be taken as an opportunity with all the challenges it poses. It is difficult and challenging to have a truly green and clean plastic industry, but Bangladesh can surely create a system for greener and cleaner production of plastics, which can support its ambition of achieving SDG 12. As an effective integration of Bangladesh's commitment to rapid digital progress, e-waste and plastic pollution management can offer the country a new avenue to create greater employment for youths, women and poor communities in both urban and rural areas with greater access to decent work, cleaner technologies as well as useful plastic with low pollution impact.
Dr Atiq Rahman is Executive Director, BCAS, Dhaka. The author acknowledges the valued contributions of Ferdaus Ara Begum and Md Tahmid Zami of BUILD and Khandker Tarin Tahsin and Sabrina Zaman of BCAS to the article.