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Dhaka Tribune

Will Bangladesh close the loop on the sachet economy?

Even though Bangladesh was the first country in the world in 2002 to ban plastic bags, plastic consumption has increased fivefold between 2005 and 2020

Update : 18 Jan 2024, 12:52 PM

Attaining rapid development within a generation, Bangladesh has also seen a rapid increase in pollution. The country has shown the world how a nation can rise from the devastation of war and instability, overcome the curse of poverty, and become one of the fastest-growing economies. There have been “unintended consequences” as well, as environmental degradation has accompanied development despite the country’s proactive role in recognizing global agreements on addressing pollution. A remarkable story of “poverty reduction and development,” Bangladesh’s path of progress may be revisited to take certain corrective measures.

The country has already received global recognition for growing from one of the poorest nations in 1971, to reaching a lower-middle income status by 2015. One of the most densely populated countries, Bangladesh is feeding its 170 million people as its population more than doubled and food production quadrupled since independence. Around 75% of people lived below the poverty line in the middle 1970s. What’s encouraging is that this poverty rate came down to 11.8% in 2010 and 5% in 2022, following the international poverty line of $2.15 a day. Human development outcomes improved, too. Rapid urbanization, industrialization, and increase in consumption have been instrumental in this development.

Duality of growth

The country’s annual per capita plastic consumption in urban areas has tripled to 9kg in 2020 from only 3kg in 2005. Even though Bangladesh was the first country in the world in 2002 to ban plastic bags, plastic consumption has increased fivefold between 2005 and 2020.

However, like in other countries, the growth in plastic consumption, and waste is difficult to curb in Bangladesh. So, the question quickly arises as to what can be done to solve the problems that flow from it. 

What’s the actual problem?

In Bangladesh, 31% of the consumed plastic is recycled in urban areas, according to the World Bank. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this percentage is largely made up of high valuelastics such as soda and water bottles, medicine containers, and many other common consumer product containers. These are types of plastics that are relatively easy to collect and recycle.

On the flip side, it is mainly the single-use plastic items such as shopping bags, wrappers, and sachets that are more mismanaged. Particularly, multi-layered sachets are almost impossible to manage and recycle. This creates significant risks for future life. Due to a lack of alternatives to manage sachet waste, the bulk of it is dumped in overflowing landfills causing pollution of soils and waterways. They are sometimes sent to incineration which pollutes the air with toxic gases, heavy metals, and particles. In turn, this causes health hazards and contaminates waterways, shorelines, and oceans.

The big question for Bangladesh

Given the significant effects on future life conditions, there are calls for a ban on sachets. But this creates tension, specifically in countries like Bangladesh, where many people see convenience and product safety in these sachets. Whether it is shampoo, soap, coffee, washing powders, or powdered milk, millions of people depend on sachets daily. Bangladesh should ask the question: How do we handle our growing sachet economy to ensure a decent life for everyone today and tomorrow?

What’s been learned

FMCG companies, recycling businesses, and non-governmental organizations need to find solutions to the question above. Solutions are being explored, but a coordinated effort is still a prerequisite for making breakthroughs. Some brands have been investing in waste collection efforts, mostly focused on bottle waste. Some others have initiated similar endeavours. A big learning, however, is that the value derived from this waste, a source of energy or as feedstock for new recycled products, is essential.

The margins earned on the waste by the recycler or energy producer should cover the expenses of both the waste collection and their operations. This drives all recycling initiatives to (a) drive down the cost of collection, but also (b) increase the value derived from it when sold.

The final step

In 2021, in part supported by Danish Market Development Partnerships, a collaboration between Arla, Bopinc and Arbab Group tailored a new way to upcycle different ranges of sachet waste into higher value products. These products range from construction materials such as panels, boards and poles to office furniture, office supplies and food carts. With lessons learned from this, a building block is put in place that enables the country to upcycle and resell a portion of the sachet waste through higher-value products. However, to create a sustainable and properly scaled plastic waste management system, there is still a lot of work to be done, work that requires collaboration and commitment from public and private parties across different sectors.

What’s in store?

It is worth exploring what circumstantial features might facilitate -- the creation of a system that ensures lasting plastic waste management. In the coming years, the focus will be on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). EPR is an environmental policy approach that assigns producers the responsibility for the entire lifecycle of products, including their responsibility towards properly treating and disposing of products and packaging after consumers have used it. The idea is that it will incentivize companies to design and innovate their products and business models in ways that can enable a more sustainable industry.

The outcome of this process will be the creation of a circular industry that phases out waste. Producers, retailers, consumers, waste management entities, government, NGOs, and research institutions can play key roles in the design and implementation of EPR. With the creation of Solid Waste Management Rules, the first signs of EPR in Bangladesh are there. As it is assigning new duties to the private sector, it looks to become a shaping force in the potential creation of a more sustainable future.

Still, the question remains as to whether setting the new rules of the game is enough or whether these private sector players should be facilitated in their actual adaptation to these new roles.

 

Rolph Droste is Circularity and Regeneration Lead at Bop Innovation Center. Shihab Uzzaman is Project manager at Bop Innovation Center, and Rafayet Alam is Impact Manager at Bop Innovation Center.

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