Polythene is a product of the plastic family. Plastic substances came into human use more than hundred years ago. In fact polythene has acquired popular demand throughout the world. Its detrimental effects on environment are, however, beyond compensation. Advanced countries are working to produce alternatives to polythene. Governments in Bangladesh has been expressing concern on the adverse effect of polythene on environment and public health since long. Only recently the administration has entered into an action plan to ban production and marketing of polythene bags to save environment from further deterioration. Although late, but it's a laudable step.
Polymers or long chains of homogeneous hydrocarbon molecules are the chemical components of plastic or polythene. Polymers provide polythene with improvements in rigidity and flexibility, toughness, scuff and heat resistance and clarity. The molecules of polymer are so small that bacteria or fungus cannot get through. More over they are very tightly bound. Polythene is a very durable thermoplastic product. It does not get decomposed in any natural process even in hundred years. It is not therefore biodegradable and thus not environment friendly.
Since 1970s production and use of polythene went to its peak through out the world. Entrepreneurs started manufacturing polythene bags in Hazaribagh, Dhaka in 1982. Very quickly these 'convenient' bags successfully entered every house of the country. According to reports there are more than 1500 factories of plastic materials in Bangladesh. Of them 400 produce polythene bags. These factories produce about 130 million polythene bags daily. About 10 million of them are thrown as waste on the streets, in the drains and on the water bodies leading to serious environmental hazards.
Use of polythene has become a culture of every day life for the people of all strata. Market mechanism drives people to use polythene because it is available very cheap and easily. Again it is "tough, water proof and easy to carry and store". People thus feel comfortable by using polythene bags paying little attention to the macro level impact on environment. People do not like the idea of paying a price for an environment friendly bag than getting one which is offered free of cost.
But polythene has wrought its harmful effect on soil, water and air. International Rice Research Institute found that polythene destroys the bacteria of soil causing loss of soil fertility. When dumped in soil it does not allow emission of the toxic gases and pollutants from the earth. Sunlight, its ultra violet ray in particular, which acts, as 'vitamin' for natural fertilization of soil cannot pass through the polythene into the soil. Subsequently the capacity of soil to yield agricultural produces is diminished.
Adverse effect on environment and public health due to indiscriminate use of polythene is colossal. There are more than 80 diseases caused by water borne germs. These germs generate from contaminated and stagnant sources of water. Contamination of water occurs due to irresponsible disposal of polythene bags into the drains and sewerlines. Only one piece of polythene bag can block an entire system causing water logging, pollution in the drain and germination of bacterial and water borne diseases, spread of mosquitoes and bad smells.
Processing and reprocessing of polythene substances cause air pollution. Street urchins use to collect polythene bags from the disposal sites and burn them in the open space. By doing this they produce hydrogen cyanide and other poisonous gases that pollute air as well as affect health of the urchins. It may lead even to fatal disease like cancer.
Many countries have marketed alternatives to polythene. Some advanced countries have even succeeded to produce biodegradable polythene. SMEC Bangladesh Ltd. released an Inception Report in 2001 on Study on Control and Management of Polythene Bags in Bangladesh. It is a comprehensive report on the state of polythene in Bangladesh. The report finds that an additive comprising a very specified combination of 39 chemicals can help produce degradable polythene and plastic substances. Application of additive in appropriate doses in the manufacturing process can produce polythene bags with specified life span of bio-degradation. The technology is designed in such a way that the plastic can dissolve into water, carbon dioxide and existing minerals in safe and reliable manner. Again, production of photodegradable plastics involves incorporation of photosensitive carbonyl groups or the addition of other photosensitive additives. United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Scandinavian countries and a few states of India have already started using biodegradable polythene bags.
Government of Bangladesh has taken pragmatic action plan to ban use and production of polythene with effect from 01 January. The concern of the government is praiseworthy. Cabinet approved the initiative to ban use and marketing of shopping polythene bags of thickness up to 20-micron in Dhaka Metropolitan area. The Ministry of Forest and Environment held meetings with cross section of people that include stakeholders, users, producers, executive agents, academicians, policy makers, media people and political leaders to gain political and social commitment and support.
Nation cannot expect ethical value from all citizens of a country. That is why government needs to have pragmatic and strategic policy and not emotion driven one. Appropriate legal frame work, production and marketing of environment friendly shopping bags, mass campaign for building public awareness against the bad effect of polythene may be some of the steps that government has considered to undertake. Given all popular actions and approaches that it has taken, government needs to do more for a cogent success. The existing laws are very inadequate to award punitive action against polythene users and producers. There should be law for specific purpose on ban of polythene substances that are responsible for degradation of environment. Private sectors can be encouraged to produce alternatives to polythene bags that are cheap, available, durable, comfortable and economic. Ministry of Jute may go for in depth research to make shopping jute bags that can compete with any synthetic bag in terms of price, utility and durability. Again there is an extensive Indian border around Bangladesh. It has been learnt that the bordering states of India are producing huge amount of plastics and polythene substances. Very cautious vigil should be kept there so that polythene product cannot enter into Bangladesh legally or illegally.
Government is doing much to take the people in its campaign for eradication of polythene menace. It needs to do more to the extent that the people should share that the problem of polythene is not a problem of the government alone, it is a problem of every citizen of the country. Every citizen should feel the concern, ownership and belongingness with the problem and act accordingly. Public-Private-Community Partnership (PPCP) concept that represents every segment of citizens of a state should have a roll to play to sustain the programme of eradication of polythene. Government can consider each Ward of Dhaka City Corporation as unit to cater this concept towards mobilization of people's support and participation.
Source : The Daily Star, Dhaka, January 4, 2002