Realising the potential of jute polymer  

Nilratan Halder     | Published: July 12, 2018 22:06:54 | Updated: July 13, 2018 22:10:19

If geneticist Maqsudul Alam's groundbreaking genome sequencing of jute has changed the scientific and agricultural map of the country, it has been ably followed by Dr Mubarak Ahmad Khan's invention of jute polymer, another milestone breakthrough of scientific, industrial and commercial values. This polymer has the potential to change the economic map of Bangladesh and the environmental map of the entire world. Jute polymer, reportedly, stands to replace petroleum-based polymers like polythene and polypropylene.

Thin and light, polythene bags have captured the packaging marker for a long time. The UN Environment estimates that up to five trillion polythene bags are used and discarded annually by the world currently. In Bangladesh where production and use of polythene are legally forbidden, at least 20 million such bags are used, according to Poribesh Bachao Andolon, every single day in the capital city alone. Across the country this will be a staggering figure. Non-biodegradable, use of polythene bags is a cause for serious concern all across the world.

The search for a suitable biodegradable alternative has been on for long. Jute polymer is the right answer to this quest. Equally resistant to water and air, it is biodegradable and has the added advantage of holding 1.5 times more strength. This means shopping bags produced from jute polymer can be reused for a number of times. The only factor that goes against jute polymer is its cost. It is 150 per cent costlier. But mass production can bring down the production cost to a tolerable level.

The crunch of the problem actually lies here. Trial run of jute polymer sheets has been successful but the project, reportedly, has hit a snag. Inventor of the substance, Dr Mubarak now feels frustrated seeing that his pet project cannot take off on account of severe fund crisis. Even the trial run is under threat because of fund shortage. It is all because, the exercise has been brought under a jute mill that is under the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC). The mill where the trial run is conducted is facing severe financial crisis so much so that it cannot pay wages to its workers regularly.

So the fund crisis hits the process of production of polymer sheets now accomplished by machines crafted locally. Actually, there is a need for automatic machines for collecting cellulose and then turning it into viscous solution which is given the shape of polymer sheets, according to the need. The inventor of the jute polymer has done his part of the job. Now the government and also private parties should have approached him to know how factories or industries could go into its commercial mass production. Instead, he has to knock at the doors of different authorities who are not prompt enough to respond to his requests.

This is really sad. No one needs to be a Dr Mubarak to realise that here is an invention that can go a long way in reviving the lost glory of jute and even turn it into the number one foreign exchange earner, provided that it receives right kind of policy and financial support. That the ban on polythene could not be enforced because there was no alternative to the cheap, thin and light substance that can be carried easily. As added advantages, it is water and air resistant. Now that a suitable alternative has been found, the patronage it deserves is simply missing.

Both the economic and environmental prospects speak for the jute polymer. Then what restrains the policymakers and financiers from backing the project in order to realise its potential. Even private parties should collaborate with the commercial venture as is done in the industrially developed countries. Let there be no hidden agenda to protect lobby groups now active in polythene and polypropylene production. This small country has already done massive damage to its environment on account of huge deposit of polythene bags and sheets. It is time the country brought a total stop to production of such vicious substances.

Now is the time for charting a new journey so far as industrial production of packaging materials are concerned. Dr Mubarak has shown the way and there is no scope to reject this gift. Procurement of automatic machines for cellulose collection and then turning it into viscous solution will not cost a forbidding amount. Dr Mubarak has sought for an initial budget of Tk 2.0-2.5 billion for the purpose. This by no means is an outrageous amount.

Even if the conventional jute mills -almost all of them are losing concerns -are turned into units producing jute polymer, most likely those will not be able to meet the demand from the world. Considering the merit and health benefit of biodegradable jute polymer, countries all across the world are expected to place orders for such poly bags and sheets. Thus the jute mills are not likely to be on the losing side any more. This will obviously raise demand for more jute. And price will also go up. Farmers will then feel encouraged to cultivate jute. That will be a huge turn-around for jute and jute industry. So there is no reason why the commercial and environmental prospect of jute should remain unrealised.   



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