The government wants to curb the use of hazardous polythenes in packaging by making biodegradable alternatives mandatory.
The move, announced as the UN prepares to observe World Environment Day today, is part of efforts to reduce the 300,000 tons of plastic waste which are dumped into water bodies and open places in Bangladesh each year, and the 17,000 tons sent to landfill.
Department of Environment (DoE) Director Md Ziaul Haque said an inter-ministerial meeting will be held on Wednesday to discuss the issue.
“We will talk to the producers of both traditional polythene and biodegradable polythene (to) finalize the necessary preparation for making biodegradable plastic use mandatory in order to protect the environment,” Ziaul said.
Bangladesh has a proud record in legislating against hazardous plastics use, becoming the first country in the world to ban the use of plastic bags, in January 2002.
In 2010, the government also introduced the Mandatory Jute Packaging Act, stipulating the use of jute bags instead of plastic bags to pack paddy, rice, wheat, maize, sugar and fertilizer.
Although other countries including South Africa, Rwanda, China, Australia and Italy followed suit in banning plastic bags, the move has proved ineffective over the years due to the illegal production and ready availability of the hazardous bags, a lack of awareness, and apparently no viable alternatives.
At present, around 5 million biodegradable bags are produced annually in the country - an insignificant amount against the ever-growing demand. The government now wants to ensure a solid supply of biodegradable plastic bags before declaring their usage mandatory.
As such, the Ministry of Environment and Forests will sit with all the stakeholders to find out the ways to increase production and availability of biodegradable plastic.
The other problem is that biodegradable plastic is costlier. Currently, the price of a biodegradable bag is more than Tk5, while the price of traditional one is less than Tk1.
However, DoE official Ziaul believes that biodegradable plastic production will increase if the government can provide proper incentives to set up enough factories.
“We will try to figure out the ways, including providing incentive to the producers, to reduce the prices of biodegradable bags,” he said.
At the same time, he said the government will take adequate measures including awareness building among the people to help them understand the importance of using biodegradable polythene.
Currently, just one local company, Expo Accessories Ltd, produces biodegradable polythene bags for garment exports using imported raw materials.
However, Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation recently invented a technology that can locally produce a biodegradable polythene bag alternative called a “Sonali Bag”, by mixing a certain amount of polymer and jute.
“Currently we are producing 3,000 pieces of bag daily but we will make it to 15,000 daily soon,” Dr Mubaraok Ahmed Khan, the bag’s inventor, told the Dhaka Tribune.
“If the government can come up with a proper plan, the country can earn a good amount of foreign currency by exporting this item after meeting the domestic demand.”
The country’s plastics industry produces basic products for ready-made garments, construction materials, packaging and household goods.
However, plastic usage is very low in the other sectors such as agro-processing and automotive.
Among the wider population, the government also has no existing data on the demand for regular polythene, although the DoE estimates the per capita plastic consumption in Bangladesh to be around 8kgs annually.
In a grim foreboding made in January, the Bangladesh Plastic Goods Manufacturers and Exporters' Association (BPGMEA) said that by 2030, total consumption would be 30kg per person.
The association called for the country’s waste management capacity to be expanded in order to cope with the health and environmental hazards that such an enormous rise would be expected to cause.
In a press statement issued on Monday in advance of UN World Environment Day, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) also demanded a stronger enforcement of the law in order to curb the illegal production, marketing and use of plastic to prevent environment pollution.
The anti-corruption body placed an eight-point demand, which included: ensuring exemplary punishment for violating law; planning and implementing community based waste management systems; taking initiatives in government and non-government sector to ensure recycling of plastic goods; inventing environment friendly alternatives of plastics; and practicing transparency in all climate fund-run activities.