Farewell to polybags

Rezaul Karim

People in general have welcomed the decision of ban on polybags and the city dwellers have started their shopping with jute bags as they did decades back. It has been witnessed in markets, shopping centres and also at kitchen markets in the city that the sellers have given farewell to the environment hostile polybags.

It has been generally observed that less attention was given to the increasing environmental pollution and proper disposal as well as utilisation of solid wastes across the country, particularly in the capital city of Dhaka, by the government, Ministry of Environment, Departments of Environment, Agriculture, Health, Municipalities and other allied agencies.

Bangladesh is apparently now in the grip of all sorts of pollution, like air pollution, soil pollution, water pollution and what not. Dwellers of capital Dhaka are the worst sufferers. The indiscriminate industralisa-tion process in Bangladesh over the past decades has created significant environmental problems. Among the most significant is the enormous volume of solid waste, which is being produced everyday but not to be disposed of properly.

The mismanagement in the disposal of the solid wastes, particularly the polythene shopping bag has caused serious threat to the soil, public health, drainage and sewerage system in the capital city. The drainage system in the city is about to be collapsed. About five to six feet layers of polybag have developed at places at the bottom of the river Buriganga. Although other big cities in Bangladesh have also started facing the problem from polythene, but the situation in Dhaka has gone beyond control. As a non-biodegradable environment hazard, it has already wreaked havoc in public sanitation, not to speak of the irreparable damage its further use could inevitably bring to our life system.

According to experts, polythene is a thermoplastic material which when heated gets softened due to weakening of intermolecular forces and melts. On cooling it solidifies again. Polythene, particularly the black polythene contains carcinogenic substance. Polythene is polymers of ethylene compound existing in a covalent bond, which is not easily oxidized. Polythene is made with presence of benzyl peroxide an organic solution, for example benzene liquid, butane or propane. Usually polythene is manufactured by gas phase polymerization. The manufacturing process of polythene does not yield complete polymerization but create different kinds of monomeric vinyl chlorides. Heavy concentration of these substances is highly toxic and may even cause cancer. Toxic substances with food materials when come in direct contact with polythene (bread, biscuit, chips in polythene cover and most of the brightly coloured polythene contains such agents as lead and cadmium) they become contaminated. The contaminated food staff when ingested causes toxic effects on health.

It was only in mid 1982 when polythene bag came to Bangladesh it drove out all other shopping bags from the market on its own merit. Production of polybag started in 1983 and since then its use and production increased manifold. Polybags are used extensively because of their low cost and practical nature.

According to a study of the Ministry of Environment, there are around 800 polythene factories in the country and most of them are situated in the capital. In 1983, there were only two polythene bag factories, but this number just increased to 800. These factories produce about 129 million polybags per day. According to survey of an NGO, some 315 to 320 factories are engaged in manufacturing thin shopping bags and on an average eight to 12 workers are employed in each factory. Between 2,520 and 3,840 workers are engaged in these factories.

However, the manufacturers claim that the number of such plastic factories is about 1,500 and around 1,30,000 workers are employed in these factories. But the survey reports of government and NGOs termed the manufacturers' claim as completely untrue. Sources said production of polythene bags is highly profitable and the investment for setting up a factory is very low. Preliminary investment in a polybag factory is only about Tk two lakh. The production cost of each thin polybag is about Tk 0.05 to Tk 007 while the manufacturers sell these to wholesalers for Tk 0.30 to Tk 0.35 each.

The Ministry of Environment survey report shows that about 10 million polythene bags are used and nine million dumped everyday in Dhaka city. On average, a family in Dhaka throws out four polybags everyday. And out of that only 10 percent are put into designated spots, however, lack of adequate facility is also responsible for the menace.

The bags are typically thrown in the street or into drainage facilities. Since the bags do not degrade as paper bags do, these very frequently end up clogging drains and sewerage system, which in turn creates significant negative health effects, water logging etc. Even when the polythene bags are recycled, this creates harmful hydrogen cyanide gas which contributes to respiratory problems.

Land filling is still most prevalent way of treating waste in Bangladesh, notably in Dhaka. Irrespective of physical and chemical compositions of solid wastes all types of solid wastes are dumped together. The present crude way of land filling carried out by the Dhaka City Corporation is definitely unscientific. It has got direct effect on soil, air and water as physical environment and also on flora and fauna, agriculture, human settlement, public health as biological and human environment.

The Ministry of Environment, NGOs, environmental journalists, civil society and others have long been campaigning against the adverse effects of polybags. The Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh (FEJB) played a pioneer role in launching campaign against polybag and its members succeeded to create awareness among the policymakers, politicians and people in general about the threat to soil, public health, drainage and sewerage system.

To free the country from the curse of polythene shopping bags, previous BNP government in 1994 had taken a bold step and finalised decision to ban use, production and marketing of polybags. But the move finally failed because of pressure from both inside and outside the government. The erstwhile Awami League government had also taken a move to ban the polybags, but it also failed. At long last, the ban on polybags seemed firmly on course after the Cabinet in its December 23 meeting okayed the Environment Ministry proposal to prohibit use and marketing of thin polythene bags in Dhaka city from January 1, 2002.

Although there were some supporters of polybags in the cabinet, but finally all members supported the move overwhelmingly. This government decision is considered as the best New Year gift for the countrymen. It is the 20 micron wafer-thin variety that came under the ban orders. The Ministry of Environment has also declared to impose ban on use and marketing of polybags across the country from March 1 and soon make necessary law in the upcoming parliament session to stop its production. Credit goes to Environment Minister Shahjahan Siraj, Secretary Sabihuddin Ahmed and few other officials of the Ministry for their courageous role.

Official sources said Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is very much concerned about the state of environment in the country and ordered the Environment Ministry to go ahead with effective steps to eliminate the causes of environmental pollution. They said the next course of action of the government is to free the capital of air pollution and it would launch drive against emission of black smoke by motor vehicles.

As alternative of polybags, the government has already instructed the Ministry of Jute and Textile to go for massive production of shopping bags. Besides, the government has urged upon the private sector to produce other alternatives of polybags. People in general have welcomed the decision of ban on polybags and the city dwellers have started their shopping with jute bags as they did decades back. It has been witnessed in markets, shopping centres and also at kitchen markets in the city that the sellers have given farewell to the environment hostile polybags. A large number of jute mills, which were closed for years, may now start production of jute shopping bags in full swing. A large number of poor people in the city have also started making paper containers (thonga) and supplying that to the markets and shops. It is hoped that the environment friendly substitutes of polybags would soon remove the temporary suffering being felt during shopping at the kitchen markets.

Rezaul Karim is a senior reporter of The Daily Star and member of Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh (FEJB).

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, January 4, 2002