The Bangladeshi RMG sector consists of approximately 81.71% of the country's total exports and creates job for almost 4 million workers (80% of which are women) in 4296 factories, as stated in a recent BGMEA report. However, we should not overlook the damage done by the RMG sector to different rivers. The textile and RMG sector generates huge volumes of water-based waste containing various chemicals used in dyeing, printing and various other processes. The generated waste or effluent is well beyond the national standard and are highly harmful for the environment. The Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) is designed to treat these effluent so that it reduces the damage done to the environment as well as create other benefits for the sector, such as greater acknowledgment from foreign buyers and compliance with environmental laws etc.
Getting right the treatment The tanneries and factories of Hazaribagh and Keranigonj regularly discharge huge amounts of waste into rivers like Buriganga, Shitalakkha, Balu, Turag and Bangshi. Coping with this untreated wastewater through the maintenance of parameters like pH, biological oxygen demand, chemical oxygen demand, total dissolved solids and sometimes, heavy metals and colour of effluent, remains one of the biggest challenges of the textile and RMG sector. However, there are some approaches which have already proved beneficial. Under the Environmental Conservation Rules 1997, it is mandatory for the textile and RMG sector to setup ETPs to treat waste before it is released into the environment. For this, it is essential to select an appropriate place for the ETP, build a design efficient treatment plant and use appropriate water treatment technology. It is also very important to have sound knowledge on different types of effluents in order to adopt the relevant technology. The three typical types of treatment used are biological treatment, physico-chemical treatment, and combined physico-chemical and biological treatment. The combined treatment is most commonly used in the textile and RMG sector. Different studies already reveal that biological treatment is most efficient in keeping parameters well within national standards, but it requires high initial investment and more space, and fails to treat the colour of effluent. The combined treatment, on the other hand, holds high running costs when it comes to chemical and energy consumption.
Effective implementation in Bangladesh There are quite a few practices and initiatives through which the ETP can be effectively operated in Bangladesh. One such practice is to outsource the effluent treatment requirements, which can even reduce yearly costs for the firms. Currently, there are no specialised firms in this effluent management, and is therefore a promising sector for new entrepreneurs. Another form of efficient ETP operation practiced by different firms in Bangladesh focuses on the exercise of chemical ETPs. Identifying the effluent’s characteristics, keeping routine data and regular introduction of jar testing are key to the success of this method. It is a good example of a team approach, where almost everyone concerned with the production process, ranging from operators, supervisors, engineers and managers, are aware of their environmental responsibilities. Effective ETP operations in Bangladesh also requires installation of variable-frequency drivers augmented machinery and equipment to help in controlling the speed of an electric motor, upgrading the heating, cooling, ventilation systems and facilitating energy efficient lighting systems. Installation of a diversion unit in the existing ETP can also be useful in controlling risk. Firms can monitor the value of the chemical parameters and control the effluent at an optimum level and reuse the contents of the tank in the manufacturing process. This would certainly increase the performance level of the firms and reduce operating costs. Private-public partnerships can play a significant role in setting up and even running ETP by establishing equipment and chemicals markets, and can also help ensuring the competitive market equilibrium conditions within this sector. Cost of setting up the ETP varies greatly across regions, and prices of ETP equipment in Bangladesh is significantly higher than the European markets. Therefore, government intervention in the market to lower prices is welcome and would surely help the firms in properly installing and maintaining ETPs. The firms can also introduce internal reward programmes. The treatment costs of the ETP are presumed to be lower if the washing unit of the firm releases less volume of effluent, so by keeping tabs on how efficiently the washing unit uses chemicals, workers can be rewarded. Such an approach can not only set an example for the other firms in the sector, but would also make the workers involved in the RMG sector more involved in protecting the environment.
Pro-environment development is the way forward Finance minister AMA Muhith in his budget speech for 2014-15, announced that the government has taken the decision to impose 1% “Environmental Protection Surcharge” or “green tax” on ad-valorem basis. This tax will be imposed on all the Bangladeshi products polluting the environment. This initiative sounds promising, but needs to be monitored by the National Board of Revenues (NBR). So far, NBR has listed 760 industries that are not maintaining ETP standards. It is also evident that a lot of factories operate ETP plants just at the time of inspection by the respected authorities. In some cases, the firms also offer bribes to prepare a false report. Recently, government has slowed down the assessment process after realising it might hurt the country’s international image. However, in an inter-ministerial meeting, shipping minister Shajahan Khan has stated that industries without ETPs have been fined almost TK 118 crore, and that the government would gradually shut down all the firms which do not use ETPs. Both households and firms need to be more conscious in preserving the environment, and more rigorous efforts need to be implemented by the government to protect the environment while expanding output. A big step forward would be if the industries themselves consider the ETP as an integral part of their operations and take other necessary initiatives, including maintenance and routine monitoring of existing ETPs. It is crucial for both large and small scale firms to realise the importance of pro-environment development, and have proper knowledge regarding ETP operations in order to work towards this goal. Initiatives taken by existing firms for a successful ETP programme can set an example for newer firms and even draw more government attention in increasing its effort towards pro-environment development.