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Dhaka Tribune


What Bangladesh is doing to shift to ‘green bricks’

  • Conventional kilns use 56m tons of coal, emit 15.6m tons of CO2
  • 60% of registered kilns don’t have clearance to operate
  • Cement blocks mandatory in govt construction work
  • 100% use of blocks to be achieved in 2028-29
Update : 25 Oct 2023, 01:45 PM

Choked by severe air pollution, Bangladesh is desperate to survive by addressing a key issue in various ways: phasing out red bricks, which are made mostly using topsoil and by burning coal and wood to make them hard, and promoting concrete blocks.

During the burning process, conventional brickfields produce a high volume of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other effluent gases, which reduce atmospheric oxygen (O2).

Since the early 1990s, hazardous brickfields using the Fixed Chimney Kiln (FCK) method have sprawled across the country, with Dhaka’s surroundings plagued by several thousand kilns and being the key source of air pollution. Shockingly, the government admits that over 60% of the country’s registered kilns do not have environmental clearance.

Representational image. Photo: Dhaka Tribune

Green groups and urban planners have long been voicing their concerns about conventional brickfields, but subsequent governments have failed to enforce the related laws as of yet. Attempts to introduce several clean and energy-efficient technologies have been unsuccessful.

About 56 million tons of coal are used for brick production across the country annually, resulting in the release of approximately 15.6 million tons of CO2 every year, Md Shahab Uddin, the minister for environment, forests, and climate change, said recently.

Over 10 years ago, the government opted for the most efficient alternative to red bricks—cement blocks that require no burning of fossil fuel but sunlight only—under the direction of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, he told Dhaka Tribune.

According to a World Bank study released on March 28 this year, South Asia is home to nine of the world’s ten cities with the worst air pollution, and Dhaka is one of them. Air pollution is responsible for about 20% of the total premature deaths in Bangladesh.

In Dhaka, concentrations of fine particulate matter such as soot and small dust (PM2.5) in some of the region’s most densely populated and poor areas are up to 20 times higher than WHO standards (5 µg/m).

Representational image. Photo: Dhaka Tribune

Exposure to such extreme air pollution has impacts ranging from stunting and reduced cognitive development in children to respiratory infections and chronic and debilitating diseases. This drives up healthcare costs, lowers a country’s productive capacity, and leads to lost days worked.

How is it promoted?

Regarding the future plans of the government to expand the use of environmentally friendly block bricks, Minister Shahab Uddin said the use of blocks has been made mandatory for construction, repair, and renovation works (buildings, herringbone bond roads, type-B rural roads) under a law of 2013. The government aims to ensure 100% utilization of cement blocks by 2025.

The government also prepared a roadmap to achieve the target, the minister said. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, it was not possible to attain the target. Hence, steps have been taken to increase the timeframe for achieving the target to 2028-29 fiscal year.

While all government bodies are working to promote “green bricks”, some large real estate companies have embarked on the manufacturing of concrete blocks and are also regularly using them in their building projects. However, the common people are not aware of the benefits of concrete blocks and tend to use red bricks. Therefore, the hazardous brick kilns do not want to stop their business or are not ready to shift to modern technology.

The government had announced 10% block utilization in 2019-20, 20% in 2020-21, 30% in 2021-22, 60% in 2022-23, 80% in 2023-24 and 100% in 2024-25.

Earlier this year, the government said there are over 8,000 listed brick kilns in the country, around 60% of which are operating without environmental clearance. However, news reports suggest that the number of harmful brick kilns will not be less than 11,000, more than half of which are located around Dhaka and some other fast-growing cities.

And, by flouting the rules, which are inadequate to change the scenario, these brickfields are putting the lives of millions of people and nature at stake.

On the other hand, the production of cement blocks contributes nothing harmful to the environment. They are made of clay, sand, or silt, usually collected after the dredging of rivers, stone dust, and cement. Later, the blocks are dried in the sun for three weeks, when water has to be poured for better strength.

The whole process is automatic in large industries, while small manufacturers perform the tasks manually.

Incentives for manufacturers 

The government has undertaken some activities and plans to expand the use of cement blocks, including a reduction in the value-added tax, on the import of all machineries used in block production and on manufactured blocks, Minister Shahab Uddin told Dhaka Tribune.

Moreover, awareness campaigns are being carried out with consumers, various public and private institutions, brick-kiln owners, block-brick manufacturers, and other stakeholders, he added.

To encourage brick-making firms, the government is providing low-interest loans through Bangladesh Bank. Besides, there is no obligation for block brick manufacturing companies to get a brick burning license. Besides, environmental clearance has been simplified by upgrading all block, concrete, and ready-mix product manufacturing companies from the orange-B category to the yellow category.

Why concrete blocks? 

The Department of Environment (DoE) has been promoting several energy-efficient and cleaner methods over the last 13 years. In the meantime, the High Court has given directives many times to take effective measures to cut air pollution and shut down the hazardous brick kilns.

In 2010, the DoE authorities threatened not to renew licenses for kilns after 2012 if the owners did not adopt cleaner methods. The DoE had also demonstrated the viability of alternative building materials, like concrete blocks, but the owners have not complied.

If implemented widely, the initiatives could help produce 10 times more bricks from a single plant than what they are making conventionally, cut air pollution significantly, and thus reduce health hazards and loss of agricultural production.

Representational image. Photo: Dhaka Tribune

For the last few years, the Housing and Building Research Institute (HBRI) has been doing the tough job of promoting alternative building materials, including concrete blocks, for walls, floors, and roofing. Other alternative materials include thermal blocks, compressed stabilized earth blocks, and sand-cement hollow blocks. 

Now the country has over 100 large and medium industries making concrete blocks of different kinds, focusing on city areas, while the number of machine suppliers is only three. Due to the low price of the machines and their future potential, many young entrepreneurs are engaging in this business in Dhaka and other districts, but more needs to be done for the sake of the environment and to compete with the conventional kilns.

These bricks are long-lasting and also earthquake-resistant. The cost of these “green bricks” is also much lower than conventional red bricks, potentially reducing construction costs by 20-30%. Another benefit of making concrete block bricks is that the machines can be transported easily to the place where the mud is gathered.

Moreover, wall construction using concrete blocks requires less cement and sand. By using it, the weight of the building is reduced, and the construction time also drops. Being made of concrete, it is strong and increases the durability of the construction.

These blocks have less salt retention, while noise pollution and heat transfer are 40% lower than in red bricks. Construction costs also drop because block-made walls can only be finished with paint.

The case of Mir Cement

A concern of Mir Group, Mir Concrete Block Limited started its operations in 2009 as a subsidiary of Mir Concrete Products Limited. The company's products have so far been used in several projects, including the Metro Rail, Bhasan Char Rohingya Camp in Hatia Upazila, the International Trade Center (Purbachal), and the Hotel Intercontinental.

In line with the government’s plan to increase the use of blocks, Mir Concrete Block later launched its second production wing and has plans to export brocks after meeting local demands.

During a recent visit to the factory at Ganganagar village of Murapara in Rupganj of Narayanganj, it was found that the second manufacturing unit spreads over 26 bighas of land on the bank of the Shitalakkhya River. It uses fully automated block processing machines brought from China.

In this unit, the company produces 35 types of blocks, including hollow wall blocks, uni-paver blocks, rectangular paving blocks, curved stones, and pavement tiles. All items are made without the touch of hands, except for machine operations. Every day, the unit produces more than 60,000 blocks.

Around 4,000-5,000 litres of water are used daily for block production. Sometimes more water is used. The blocks should be watered twice a day. In this way, water has to be given for 21 days. As a result, the blocks are strong and long-lasting.

Representational image. Photo: Dhaka Tribune

Plant In-Charge (Production and Operation) Kamrul Islam said this block is completely environment-friendly. “We use natural materials to make these blocks: different types of sand, which are brought from different districts of the country, crushed stone, and stone dust. The most important ingredient, water, is also extracted from deep tube wells. After mixing all these ingredients and making the block, we use clean water on the blocks. A lot of room is needed for curing and watering the blocks.”

Shakhawat Hossain, head of sales and marketing, said: "At present, we have increased our capacity. We are supporting the government in achieving its goal of creating a pollution-free environment.”

The new technology has increased production three times more than before, he said. “At present, we can manufacture 150,000 to 160,000 pieces of solid blocks per day. We are trying to meet the demand in the market right now. We have more targets. In the future, we will replace some more factories in different parts of the country.”

Regarding the use of water in the process, Shakhawat Hossain said: “We are using surface water. Our greatest advantage is that the river is nearby, and it is easy for us to get clean water.”

Asked about the use of surface water, Minister Shahab Uddin said: “The private companies are using underground fresh water to make blocks. But very little water is used to make blocks, mainly for mixing the materials. It is very negligible compared to the water used in other industries.”

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