The government’s latest answer to polythene pollution still has many obstacles to overcome
The government wants to curb the pollution of the country’s wetlands, canals, rivers and arable land by making biodegradable bags a mandatory alternative to hazardous polythene bags in packaging.
On October 2, Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) and UK-based Futamura Chemical Ltd signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for manufacturing biodegradable and environmentally-friendly poly bag made of jute, named “Sonali Bag”.
It will still take some time before commercial production of the new bags can begin, however.
“Although the contract to produce the bags has been signed, it will take about six to nine months to start the operation as the necessary machineries will have to be imported from the United Kingdom,” Dr Mubarak Ahmad Khan, a scientific advisor of BJMC who invented Sonali Bag from jute cellulose, said.
“They are now producing the polymer using a semi-automatic machine but the jute polymer-made Sonali Bags will be become available to all once we begin commercial production using automatic machines.”
Although the manufacture and use of polythene shopping bags has been banned across Bangladesh since April 2012, they are still being traded due to inadequate enforcement of the ban, and the absence of a cost effective and environmentally friendly alternative.
Despite this, Dr Mubarak remains upbeat regarding the commercial future for the Sonali bags.
“Although there are some challenges regarding the cost of the whole operation, we are hopeful of beginning the manufacturing process,” he said.
The manufacturing cost of jute bags is currently double that of polythene, which in turn becomes the main reason behind the higher selling price of the former.
“If we can manage to bring down that cost, production of Sonali Bags will get a major boost,” said Dr Mubarak, who is also the former chief scientific officer of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission.
“Different local and international companies have already showed interest in buying Sonali Bags. So there is also a chance to export these bags and bring in foreign currency once commercial production starts.”
Dr Mubarak has urged the government to take initiatives to help make that happen, including offering incentives to the manufacturers.
In May, he said that without the necessary budget allocation and a dedicated institution, the “Polythene from Jute Project” could get shut down.
At that time, he said that the project would need at least Tk170 crore to be realized.
Polythene is a petroleum-based synthetic substance which is used as packaging material due to its thermo-mechanical properties and low cost.
“But it is not biodegradable,” said Dr Mubarak, who received the Bangladesh Science Academy Award in 2010.
“And because of that, the disposal of plastic waste has become a serious problem.”
In contrast, Sonali Bags are made of cellulose extracted from jute fiber. Despite being biodegradable, the polymer is water and air resistant and its texture is almost the same as polythene bags.
Furthermore, the material is durable and strong.
“Jute polymer can take one-and-a-half times more load than polythene,” Dr Mubarak said.
“Although the polymer does not absorb water, it decomposes within three to four months under soil.
“The polymer’s manufacturing cost is now high, but if we can go for large-scale production, the bags will be widely available just like polythene.”