We need stronger commitment to stop using single-use plastic
We are not really aware of how much we use plastic materials in our day-to-day lives. From our daily grocery and vegetable shopping to ordering food online, from buying soft drinks and juices to the much-needed bottled water—we end up using and storing all kinds of plastic and polythene bags, without even realising it. The only time we realise just how much plastic we have piled up is when we try to reuse or discard the empty bags, packets, boxes and containers of food items. While we can reuse some of the materials, most of them cannot be reused and go straight into the garbage bins.
The other day, I went to the food court of a shopping mall in the city with a friend. We were impressed to find a small shop which was selling only salad items. As we picked the food ourselves into a ceramic bowl and paid for it, the young shopkeeper handed us two sets of plastic forks and spoons. When my friend asked the young man why they were using throwaway plastics, instead of the regular, washable stainless-steel cutlery, he replied that it was difficult for them to wash the regular cutlery, and that plastic cutlery was more convenient. I was horrified to think about the amount of plastic cutlery the shop must be throwing away every single day, which eventually end up in our landfills, drains, canals, and eventually into the rivers.
The use of throwaway plastic materials is so pervasive in Dhaka that even the vendors who sell achar or bhorta of seasonal fruits on the streets use them without a second thought these days, whereas even a few years ago, they would use sheets of old newspapers to serve street food.
Many of the items that we purchase during our rounds to the groceries or the kitchen markets—chocolates, biscuits, powdered milk, sugar, salt, flour, etc—can be packaged in a more environment-friendly way. For example, I used to buy tins of powdered milk imported from the UK. At first, I thought the beautiful tins were made of plastic, so I decided to reuse them. I only realised that it was actually made of paper when I went to wash it. It was amazing how the company had used paper to make this durable tin to package this essential baby food that is exported around the world.
While one may argue that Bangladesh is not technologically advanced enough to improve the packaging of food items in a way that is eco-friendly and sustainable in the long run, I believe it has more to do with our lack of willingness to do so and less to do with our technological constraints. Our scientists have already invented jute polymer and biodegradable packaging materials from corn, which could be used as alternatives to polythene. Reportedly, jute polymer is not only biodegradable, but it is 1.5 times stronger than polythene, and both water- and air-resistant. Has the government come forward to support the scientists, or taken any steps for mass production of these polythene alternatives? Bangladesh, being one of the major jute producing countries in the world, should have also done more to produce and popularise the use of traditional jute bags among the people.
The result of our indifference is that plastic pollution has increased at an alarming rate in our country. Polythene bags and other single-use plastic items can be found everywhere—from the roadsides and dustbins to the landfills, from the drains and canals to the rivers. According to the Earth Day Network, Bangladesh was the 10th most plastic-polluting country in the world in 2018. Plastic contributes eight percent of the country's waste, which is equivalent to 800,000 tonnes. Reportedly, plastic waste has gone up from 178 tonnes per day in 2005 to 646 tonnes per day in 2020 in Dhaka city alone. Every year, around 300,000 tonnes of plastic waste are dumped into the water bodies and open spaces in the country.
Plastic pollution has become a serious threat to the Buriganga River's survival. While the tanneries that were situated on the bank of the river have been relocated to Savar to prevent the dumping of industrial waste into the river, it has not been possible to save this once-mighty river from plastic pollution. This daily has published many reports and photos over the years, exposing how the river has been polluted by polythene and single-use plastic bottles, which have filled up the riverbed.
The Turag, the Shitalakkhya and many other rivers flowing through the country are facing similar threats. Reportedly, the dredging of many of these rivers in recent times were obstructed due to the massive amount of polythene and plastic items accumulating at the bottom of the rivers. A report published by this newspaper in March this year revealed how the cost of dredging of the Karnaphuli River had increased due to the thick layer of plastic waste stored in the riverbed. What is even more concerning is the fact that, every year, about 200,000 tonnes of plastics flows into the Bay of Bengal from Bangladesh, exposing marine resources and fisheries to microplastics, which they consume and eventually die.
The problem is all-pervasive, and resolving this requires a strong commitment from all stakeholders. Stringent actions from the government, public awareness, workable alternatives to plastics and a sustainable plastic waste management system are all necessary to tackle the plastic menace in our country. It is incomprehensible as to why, being the first country in the world to impose a ban on polythene bag use in 2002, we have failed to enforce it to this day. Despite the High Court ordering the government to strictly enforce the ban across the country through regular market monitoring in 2020, polythene bags are still openly sold and used under the very nose of the law enforcement officials, who take no action against the violators of the rule. Sadly, the government has still not managed to close down the illegal polythene manufacturing factories in the country, as directed by the High Court.
On January 6, 2020, the High Court gave another directive to the authorities concerned to ban single-use plastic products in coastal areas, hotels, motels and restaurants across the country within a year. More than a year has passed since then, but no visible progress has been made on that front either.
It is true that as a country we are still lagging behind in terms of formulating and enforcing regulations to curb plastic use, developing a proper waste management system where plastic waste can be segregated at their sources, setting up recycling facilities, and coming up with more biodegradable alternatives to plastic and establishing the facilities for their mass-scale production. But what could possibly be the reason for not complying with the government-imposed ban and the High Court's directives in this regard?
While we must ask these questions to the authorities concerned, and hold them accountable for not abiding by the state-imposed rules, we also need to raise awareness among the public of the environmental hazards created by single-use plastics and polythene bags. It is also important to look at ourselves, see what we are doing at an individual level to reduce our consumption of plastics and reuse them where possible. Some small changes in our day-to-day behaviour can go a long way in protecting our environment from the curse of plastic pollution.
Naznin Tithi is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.