• Friday, Nov 22, 2019
  • Last Update : 11:21 am

Use of polythene bags running rampant despite jute fibre alternatives

  • Published at 12:17 am April 21st, 2019
polythene bags
Rampant use of polythene bags contributing to massive environment pollution BIgstock

Although the development of a biodegradable polymer from jute fibre by a Bangladeshi scientist had raised environmentalist’s hopes of reducing the use of polythene bags, commercial production of the jute-based “Sonali Bag” failed to take off due to shortages in funding and raw materials, among other challenges.

In the last 17 years, the Bangladesh government has taken multiple initiatives to promote the use of jute bags as an alternative for polythene, but production and sale of polythene has continued unabated across the country.

Although the development of a biodegradable polymer from jute fibre by a Bangladeshi scientist had raised environmentalist’s hopes of reducing the use of polythene bags, commercial production of the jute-based “Sonali Bag” failed to take off due to shortages in funding and raw materials, among other challenges. 

Dr Mubarak Hossain Khan, the Bangladeshi scientist responsible for the development of the jute fibre based polymer and scientific advisor to the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC), said the Sonali Bags are made from 100% organic material and are entirely biodegradable.

Although the Sonali Bag project had been hit by a fund crunch, it recently received Tk9.96 crore from the government for production of and research on the bags. 

Abdur Razzak, a polythene bag supplier who recently came to Dhaka to meet Dr Mubarak and collect Sonali Bags from him, told the Dhaka Tribune: “I have a client who wants to use Sonali Bags instead of polythene. I went to the jute mill producing the bags first, but it was closed due to labour unrest. Then I came here to the BJMC office to see if there is any way to procure some of the bags.

Despite huge demand, lack of financing hampers production

In addition to Abdur Razzak, many organizations, national and multinational companies have contacted Dr Mubarak with the aim of getting Sonali Bags.

Currently, about 20,000 Sonali Bags are produced under the pilot project at at Latif Bawany Jute Mill in Demra, Dhaka before being supplied to a number of small traders. However, officials say this is insignificant in relation to the demand.

A number of companies involved in the production of sachets and small packets, who have shouldered significant blame for sea pollution and waterlogging, are among those to have contacted Dr Mubarak for the jute fibre-based polymer. 

Dr Mubarak has expressed his frustration over inadequate financing from the government, which is curtailing production.

“There is no problem with the technology, design and raw materials. The only problem is funding. We need Tk300 crore to produce 20 tons of Sonali Bags per day, but I have not received even one such project from the government. There is massive demand for the bags. If we used all our jute to produce Sonali Bags, we would meet just one third of the global demand,” he said.

BJMC Director (production and jute) Delowar Hossain said: “Many countries banned polythene, raising the demand for alternatives. We are looking forward to producing more Sonali Bags.”

Sonali Bags are made of cellulose extracted from jute fibre. Despite being biodegradable, the polymer is water and air resistant, with a texture similar to polythene. Furthermore, the material is durable and strong.

Why the government failed to implement the ban on polythene

Bangladesh was the first country to ban polythene in 2002, but the ban has not been implemented beyond the paperwork. A lack of proper enforcement of the ban and absence of cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternatives has resulted in polythene still being widely used.

Siddika Sultana, executive director of Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO), said there is no real pressure to ban polythene from the government. 

Drives against the use of polythene are sometimes conducted, but not frequently enough to discourage producers, she added.

Significant drop in anti-polythene drives

Enforcement operations against illegal polythene industries dropped by 44% in the last fiscal year, with 353 enforcement operations in FY18 as compared to 629 in FY17. The DoE collected Tk43.71 lakh in fines from polythene producers in FY18 as compared to Tk1.17 crore in the previous fiscal year, amounting to a 66% decrease.

Furthermore, the DoE took action against 579 polythene producers in FY18, which is 57% lower than the previous fiscal year. A total 1,336 polythene producers faced legal action in FY17.

The DoE seized 104.6 tons of polythene in FY18, as compared to 152.74 tons in FY17.

Dr Sultan Ahmed, director general of the Department of Environment, said the lack of availability of alternatives and lack of awareness among the people is the main reason for the use of polythene. 

“Polythene shopping bags are cheap. A consumer can get it free of cost, which is the root cause of its massive demand. If we can make Sonali Bags available, this will be the best move against polythene. We are also looking at energy production from polythene, with such a project currently running in Jamalpur,” he added.

The Environment Department chief also said polythene with higher than 55 micron thickness is permitted, but illegal polythene with under 55 micron thickness can be produced by the same machine. This made illegal polythene producers difficult to detect.

Meanwhile, ESDO Secretary General Shahriar Hossain, and Chairman of the environmental sciences department of Stamford University Bangladesh Dr Ahmed Kamruzzaman Majumder blamed political shelter as main reason for the continued production and sale of polythene shopping bags.