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Beating plastic pollution, saving lives

  • Published at 05:04 pm June 5th, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:35 pm June 7th, 2018
Mehedi Hasan

Steps must be taken to tackle arguably one of the biggest environmental concerns of the century

World Environment Day is a UN Environment led global event to boost worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. It takes place each year on June 5 and is widely celebrated since it began in 1972. The theme of this year's World Environment Day is “Beat Plastic Pollution” which urges governments, industry, communities and individuals to come together and urgently reduce the production and use of single-use plastic, explore and promote the use of sustainable alternatives, and develop more responsible behavior on the use of plastic to save oceans, marine lives and human health from plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is a growing problem in Bangladesh. Our three major cities (i.e. Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet) are particularly at great risk. In last few years, production and consumption of diversified plastic products have been extended from households to industrial purposes. That means, the range of plastic waste has also increased. Dr. Khondaker Golam Moazzem, additional research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), says, “Bangladesh is perhaps one of the countries with fastest growth in consumption of plastic products during the last decade. Between 2005 and 2014, plastic consumption in urban areas of the country has increased significantly (by 169 percent although overall national consumption has increased by 16.2 percent) which is even higher compared to other countries and regions such as North America (32 percent), Asia (80 percent), Europe (37 percent) and world (25 percent). The growth in consumption of plastic products will continue in the coming decade. This possible rise in plastic consumption may lead to huge plastic waste in municipal areas which need to be properly managed.”

Though Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags, there are no specific laws, rules or guidelines for plastic waste management. Also, proper management and operation of the supply chain of recycling the plastic waste are absent. Approximately 50 percent of all plastic waste like lightweight, single-use plastic products and packaging materials are not properly deposited for subsequent removal to particular landfills, recycling centers, or burners. A pervasive culture for littering continues to add to the problem. And, to make matters worse, water channels such as rivers, are used for dumping industrial and domestic wastes that contain a huge amount of plastic and ultimately end up in the sea. 

Mounting health scares

As a result of all of these, soil, water, air, and the overall environment of Bangladesh is severely polluted, and we are already feeling the effects. Infested by plastic particles, arable soil is becoming barren and crops and fruits are becoming contaminated; local water bodies and marine life in the Bangladesh coast are in danger and local and sea fishes are becoming toxic; the air is riddled with dangerous chemicals that lead to respiratory problems. Children are the most vulnerable group to such pollutions.  

One of the major impacts of plastic pollution is its threat to public health as toxic chemicals find their way, through air, water, and food,  into the bloodstream and cause respiratory diseases, cancer, hormone disruption, early puberty, infertility, birth defects, impaired immunity, to name just a few problems. The last few years has shown an alarming rise in the rate of such medical complaints.  Furthermore, plastic wastes clogging drainage systems create water stagnation and proliferate breeding grounds for mosquitoes, giving rise to an increase in the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria.

Improper disposal of plastic waste results in the blockages and water-logging in sewers, contaminating surface water bodies with raw sewage. Sunlight and decomposition of the same together produces toxic gases that can have serious health consequences.

The bigger picture

Mismanagement of plastic waste is triggering disasters. Floods, aggravated by the blockage of the drainage system, are taking place at an accelerating rate, destroying houses, interrupting trains, disrupting traffic and causing landslides and other disasters during monsoon. After the flooding and waterlogging events in 1988 and 1998 in Bangladesh, it was estimated that up to 80% of the city’s waterlogging was caused by polyethylene blocking drains.

In 1995, Bangladesh formulated the Environment Conservation Act where industrial waste-related issues were mentioned. In 2002, the act has been revised and restrictions have been imposed on the production, sale and uses of environmentally harmful products especially plastic bags and products made of polyethylene or polypropylene. Also provisions for penalty and punishment have been mentioned under the rule for production, import, marketing, sale, exhibition, store, distribution, transportation or use of those products for commercial purposes. In recent years, the government has taken a number of initiatives to improve the waste, especially plastic waste management in urban areas. In 2010, a people-centric national initiative called 3R (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) was launched. However, enforcement of the act and implementation of the initiatives have so far been largely ineffective. 

There are other major components of waste in Bangladesh, but plastic takes up a disproportionately large volume and many years to degrade, and hence pose a long-term challenge to tackle it. Given this context,it’s obvious that we need to produce and use less plastic, stop improper disposal of plastic waste, move towards sustainable and biodegradable products, promote the “zero waste” philosophy, come up with technology that recycles plastic more efficiently, and raise awareness among the mass people about the serious consequences of plastic pollution.

At the same time, setting up a proper legal framework and institutional structure to manage plastic waste is needed. This depends on a strong commitment and will at the state level, appropriate and informative planning, proper policy advocacy and regulation, strict monitoring and a holistic approach from the sustainable waste management point of view. If the government wants to achieve all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and reduce environmental pollution, including proper solid waste management should be a major area of concern. Currently, the country is paying huge toll due to plastic pollution, but if it can be beaten, people will be more resilient to shocks and uncertainties, and development of the country will be accelerated.

Khadiza Akter, Programme Officer at Gender and Water Alliance Bangladesh (GWA-B)