'We get them in plastic so we sell them in plastic'
Over the last seven years, the government has gradually introduced regulations that made jute packaging mandatory for 19 agricultural products. But the parties in the supply chain viewed the regulations with disdain, and continue to use the environmentally harmful polythene and plastic bags.
The middling efforts by government authorities have not translated to effective implementation, especially considering that the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) - which sells daily essentials - is also among the offenders. In the meantime, jute sacks worth hundreds of crores of taka produced by the government remain unsold and unused.
What the law holds
In 2013, for the first time in Bangladesh, the government ordered use of jute packaging for six products - paddy, rice, wheat, maize, fertilizer, and sugar – aiming to increase jute use to support the struggling sector, and cut down the rampant pollution caused by plastic bags. The order was a culmination of the Mandatory Jute Packaging Act 2010.
Four years down the line in 2017, the rules were amended to add another 11 commodities – chilli, coriander, onion, ginger, garlic, pulses, turmeric, potatoes, flour, and rice bran. In 2018, poultry and fish feed were included as scheduled products, raising the number of commodities which must use jute packaging to 19.
Violation of the law can lead to severe punishments. Scheduled products found packaged without jute sacks can be seized and redistributed by the government. A first-time offender can be fined up to Tk50,000 or a year in prison or both. Repeat offences will double the punishment and lead to further seizure.
If any company is the offender, then its owner/director/official will be held liable unless they prove themselves innocent.
Disdain for jute
Visits to retail and wholesale markets in the capital found that only rice and potato are packed in burlap sacks. The other 17 products have continued to be stored and carried in polythene or plastic sacks.
Outside the TCB office, onion could be seen hauled out of large plastic sacks and sold to consumers in smaller polythene bags.
Jewel Hossain, a representative from TCB dealer Hazrat Enterprise, said they received the onion packaged in plastic sacks.
“We get them in plastic so we sell them in plastic,” he said.
A visit to Karwanbazar also yielded similar results as all the scheduled commodities except the aforementioned were being sold in plastic packaging instead of jute sacks. However, rice from Haque Rice Mill, Raju Auto Rice Mills, Karim Automatic Rice Mill, Rabeya Automatic Rice Mill came in jute sacks which were coated with plastic.
Poultry feed manufacturers like Aftab Feed Product Limited, Standard Feed, United Feeds Limited, and Gram Bangla Layer were found selling their products in plastic sacks. City Group, Meghna Group and Deshbandhu Group’s sugar came in plastic sacks.
Bashundhara Group’s flour, City Groups’ Teer branded flour, Shitalakkhya Flour, Sonargaon flour, Haque flour, Chaka flour, Banglar Tajmahal, were among flour products found in plastic bag.
Onions, garlic, ginger, and chilli were also being sold in plastic sacks at wholesale.
Wholesalers claimed almost all the onion, garlic, and ginger in Dhaka were imported from China in plastic packaging, and pleaded that it was out of their hands, in spite of the mobile court raids.
KM Layek Ali, general secretary of the Bangladesh Auto Major and Husking Association said: “Every single miller in our association use jute sacks. The people who use plastic are not millers, maybe they are traders.”
Mozammel Haque, advisor to the association and owner of Haque Auto Rice Mill, said: “If we do not use polythene covers, buyers say it is not original.”
Md Ujjal Mia, manager of Siddik Enterprise, said: “There are no brands that use jute sacks. Instead of fining us, the government should raid the mills and factories where these products are stuffed in plastic sacks. Besides, goods like flour and sugar cannot be packed in jute sacks because of the huge amount that get wasted.”
Challenges in enforcing
According to the Department of Jute, there were around 1,152 mobile court raids between July and December last year. They fined around Tk73.48 lakh in total. The department acknowledged the difficulty in enforcing compliance.
Sowdagar Mustafizur Rahman, director general of the Department of Jute, said: “We are taking two approaches – motivation and enforcement. We are meeting regularly with the associations related to scheduled products. The trouble in enforcing is that when we conduct raids like in the case of fertilizers, businesses go on a strike. That is not preferable at all.”
In response to concerns about jute sacks wasting sugar and flour, he suggested that businesses line the inside of jute sacks with fibre polythene like Sonali Bag – a Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation innovation made from jute. However, the much-touted Sonali Bag has had tremendous difficulty rolling out, and is only being manufactured on an experimental basis. There is no confirmed timetable on when it will be commercially marketed. There are also concerns over its pricing.
Ashraf Hossain Chowdhury, deputy general manager (Accounts & Finance) at the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation said there is about Tk700 crore worth of unsold jute sacks in stock.
Dr Shahriar Hossain, general secretary of the Environment and Social Development Organization, a pioneer of the anti-polythene movement, said: “Everyone should obey the rules and regulations of the country. Use of polythene and plastic must be eliminated to save the environment.”