Plastic is one of the labour-intensive sectors in the country dominated by the small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The sector contributes significantly to employment generation and export earnings alongside meeting domestic demand. About 5,000 different types of industries are operating in the country employing around 1.2 million people and contributing about USD 900 million to the economy through direct and deemed export, as reported by association sources.
As of now, direct export is not significant when compared with other Asian countries. Available data show that China exported plastic items worth $70 billion in 2016-17, Thailand $12.7 billion, Malaysia $7.5 billion and Vietnam $3.0 billion, while Bangladesh exported only $900 million or close to a billion. However, there are huge opportunities for expansion of the sector - covering both direct and indirect export. If required, policies can be formulated taking into consideration the industry potential and the global trend so that the sector can make progress in an environment-friendly, pollution-free and sustainable manner.
Bangladesh produces low-end products like shopping bags, oven sacks, industrial films, PVC pipes, bags, polythene sheets, plastic hangers, hand gloves, ropes, v. belts, toys, electric switches, polyester threads, computer accessories, video/audio cassettes, melamine tableware, toothbrushes, ballpoint pens, artificial flowers, wall clocks etc. The use of plastic is pervasive as there are extensive opportunities to increase diversification of plastic production in more high-value added areas and thus increase export as well. If the indirect export or deemed export could be formalised, the real export might be much higher.
On the other hand, countries like China are shifting their strategy. Bangladesh can grab the opportunities of China+one country if modern technologies are imported in increased volume and make plans for the sector to undergo expansion scheme in the coming decade.
At the moment, major various plastic products produced by major manufacturers in the country are exported to Poland, China, UK, Belgium, France, Germany, USA, Canada, Spain, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Australia, Sri Lanka, Japan, Malaysia, the UAE, Hong Kong, Bahrain, Italy, New Zealand and the Netherlands. Still, high-value products are not in the export list.
The use of plastic has been increasing day by day and it will increase further because of its durability and high performance. Available statistics show that globally use of plastic in 2006 was 47.15 million tonnes, which rose to 51.11 million tonnes in 2015. It was 4.10 million tonnes in CIS countries, which got doubled to 8.07 million tonnes in 2015. Use of plastic in Japan, some Asian countries, Latin America, Middle East and Africa has increased in the meantime from 205 million tonnes to 269 million tonnes. All the countries across the globe are trying to maximise the benefits of plastic use in a sustainable manner. The main reason behind accommodating technology in such a manner is that it will help the use of plastic while at the same time taking care of environment.
In order to make sustainable use of plastic, we need to know about the supply chain areas and the different actors involved. One of the important actors is the suppliers that include petrochemical industries/virgin resin manufacturers, mould suppliers, machinery suppliers, chemical suppliers etc. Manufacturing segments pass through the wholesalers, retailers, consumers, exporters, plastic recyclers. The consumers contribute significantly towards polluting the environment, while municipal collectors/feriwallas/tokais are also responsible in this regard. Plastic recycling scheme is available in the country, but that is in an informal state. Although municipalities can play a significant role in an organised way, they are yet to come up with a bigger role.
The identified dangers of plastic is huge if not handled carefully. Different sources of information reveal that 500 billion plastic bags are used annually worldwide with 13 million tonnes of plastic wastes deposited in the ocean every year. It is said that there will be more plastic than fish in the seas across the world by 2050. A whopping total of 100,000 sea creatures are believed to have faced deaths due to plastics wastes.
Bangladesh is reportedly 10th in plastic waste disposal in the world. Every year, 14 million polythene bags are deposited into wetlands from Dhaka city's plastic wastes. Every year, 800,000 tonnes of wastes are generated in Bangladesh, out of which 200,000 tonnes are from plastics. In 1998 and 2008, plastic wastes were the main contributors that blocked Dhaka city's drainage system. Per capita plastic consumption in Bangladesh is 7-8 kgs, which by 2030 will increase to 30-35 kgs.
Sustainability of plastic industries for export competitiveness is one of the key issues to be handled very carefully. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs believe that they are not the polluters, rather it is the consumers who are to be held responsible for pollution. We can see the use of plastic items everywhere.
A recent study shows that about 70 per cent of the plastic items generated in Bangladesh are recycled through informal sector, which has got high environmental and social footprint. Recycled resin manufacturing can have immense potentials if it can be recycled in a proper way. Improved energy management through environmental compliance and better implementation and use of ISO 14001 could be some of the measures to bring sustainability in this sector.
There are two main types of plastic materials being used in the country: thermoplastics (80 per cent) and thermosetting (20 per cent). The former, due to its common usability, causes more waste contamination, poisoning of freshwater life, leaching in water etc having more pollution impact, while the latter, being mostly metal substitute, is less pollutant.
The study recommended a Plastic Policy with clear provisions for plastic recycling, which will include a comprehensive zero waste action plan, banning polyester take-out food containers, discouraging single use bags within the city, and waste collection through strengthening coordination between municipalities and industrial or private plastic user support recycling bodies by attracting investment through tax incentives. The study also recommended introduction of payback for plastic container/packaging bottles to encourage consumers to become either recycling buyers or depot by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Some incentives for businesses can also be there through cash incentive facility for plastic firms following duty drawback/ bonded warehouse facility (as enjoyed by the RMG firms).
Buyers usually put different types of standards for different reasons. Exporters feel discouraged seeing continuous changes. A harmonised standard for plastic sector could be helpful. In leather sector, the Leather Working Group is working as the United Nations-endorsed forum to set up harmonised standards requirement for export purposes. Plastic association in collaboration with recycling association can have collaboration with international plastic association(s) to chalk out a plan of action and advocate for a forum for standardisation of plastic products.
Awareness and incentives for consumers through enforcement of stricter laws on littering is also very important. If we cannot change our habit in a city with huge burden of population, the land and water-bodies will be contaminated, make our life miserable. Devising programmes for citizens' responsibility on sea-beaches/city spaces etc., focussing on citywide education and awareness on recyclable material processing and purchasing practices, recycling and waste management in multi-family dwellings, installing accessible recycle bins in public places, partnership with local schools to create waste reduction and recycling programmes could be helpful.
Bangladesh Plastic Goods Manufacturers and Exporters Association and relevant stakeholders could explore a financial incentive upon return of used plastic container/packaging bottles at designated points to encourage consumers/users in this regard. The industry owners, thus, can recycle used plastic products in a systematic way. These are all in policies, implementation of which needs a coordinated effort and continuous follow-up. All concerned should play a sincere role so that we can also contribute to making our city, country and the world as a whole inhabitable.
Ferdaus Ara Begum is CEO of Business Initiative Leading Development (BUILD) - a public-private dialogue platform supported by DCCI, CCCI and MCCI.
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