Sale and production of different types of banned polythene bags continue to thrive in the country, causing serious environmental pollution and public health hazards.
Non-enforcement of the existing laws and minimal vigilance from the authorities concerned are blamed for extensive use of polythene bags, experts and environmentalist groups have said.
Although the government put a ban on use, production and marketing of the non-biodegradable material in 2002 in consideration of its adverse impact on public health and environment, such restrictions have not yielded any visible results, they say.
Besides, unavailability of alternatives to polythene bags and lower level of collective awareness in society are also blamed for widespread use of the single-use polythene bags in the country.
There are over 200 factories manufacturing polythene bags alone in the city's old Dhaka. Each factory in operation has the daily production capacity of about 500-700 tonnes of polythene bags of different categories.
Besides, the factories continue their production in two shifts daily, the research platform Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO), which closely monitors the situation, has told the FE.
Furthermore, there are about 350 factories in old Dhaka that recycle polythene bags and other plastic products, ESDO finds in its field survey recently.
The factories are largely located in Shoari Ghat, Islambagh, Chawkbazar, Kamrangirchar, Kamalbagh and Sadarghat areas. The wholesale shops are scattered in different parts of the city, mainly in Old Dhaka and Karwan Bazar.
The main customers of these polythene bags are kitchen market outlets, grocery shops and wholesale market traders.
Visiting several factories in the city's Sadarghat area and the wholesale shops at Karwan Bazar and in old Dhaka, the FE correspondents have found that the production, sale, marketing and transportation of polythene bags have been going on explicitly.
Mahbub Ali, proprietor of Madina Enterprise, said prices of handleless poly bags are Tk 260 to Tk 380 per kg depending on quality and holding capacity and the prices of those with handles and higher thickness and holding capacity are Tk 500 to Tk 850.
When asked about the ban on sale, stock and marketing of poly bags, he said, "Everyone in the country uses polythene bags as they are cheaper than paper and fabric-made bags."
If the government stops production of polythene in the country, it will come from India because of its huge demand here, he said.
After the ban imposed on non-biodegradable bags in 2002, those made of paper and fabrics gained popularity among the users.
But the production and marketing of such bags almost vanished, as the anti-polythene drives slowed down later.
After Dhaka, Jashore has emerged as another hub for polythene bags, mostly for those imported from neighbouring India, the ESDO study finds.
"In Jashore, we find polythene bags entering the country from India through different border points illegally as they are cheaper than the locally-produced ones," said Siddika Sultana, Executive Director of ESDO.
These cheaper polythene bags are entering the country from India following the local ban on six types of single-use plastic products-plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and plastic pouches, she added.
ESDO Secretary General Dr Shahriar Hossain said only 10-15 per cent of plastic waste is thrown into dustbins. The rest of them end up in drains, sewerage pipes and open places. And 80 per cent of Dhaka's waterlogging is caused by plastic bags.
He said, "Polythene bags are not a necessity, rather it is a bad habit to use such bags. The use of poly bags continues because of lax enforcement of law. A lack of political will is another concern."
Polythene bags cause major environmental degradation and air pollution. Poly bags in the soil disrupt the flow of nutrients and reduce the infiltration of sunlight and water, he added.
According to a report published by Earth Day Network in 2018, Bangladesh ranked 10th out of the top 20 plastic-pollutant countries in the world.
Plastics account for 8.0 per cent of the country's waste, equivalent to 800,000 tonnes per annum. Of them, around 200,000 tonnes end up in the sea and rivers, the report showed.
It also said about 14 million polythene bags are used every day in Dhaka city only. A significant portion of them is disposed of in open spaces.
According to another study by Waste Concern, a social business enterprise for waste recycling, the per capita annual use of plastic products in Dhaka was 5.56kg in 2005. The use increased to 17.24kg in 2017.
The study, carried out in collaboration with the Department of Environment (DoE), also found that 36 per cent of the plastic waste was recycled in the informal sector.
However, 39 per cent of such waste was dumped in landfill sites. Another 25 per cent was thrown into open spaces which eventually ended up in the Bay of Bengal through the rivers.
"In a regular manner, DoE conducts drives in the city against illegal plastic bags. But as soon as the drive ends, the polythene bags stage a comeback in the markets again," said Begum Rubina Ferdoushi, DoE Director (Monitoring & Enforcement).
"We do our job accordingly, but a decision is needed from the top (government) to check it (polythene bags)," she told the FE.
During the fiscal year 2018-19, the DoE conducted 288 mobile courts and fined 531 organisations Tk 11.4 million (1.14 crore) for producing and selling polythene bags, she said.
Bangladesh Plastic Goods Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BPGMEA) President Md Jashim Uddin said use of polythene bags or other plastic products is not the problem. The problem is disposal of them here and there.
"If the people stop littering the open spaces and the city corporations introduce a proper waste management system, environment pollution will come down to a great extent," he said.
Besides, "the reality is there is no convenient and cheaper alternative to polythene bags to carry everyday items. Though environment-friendly jute-made Sonali bag has been invented, it is yet to be produced on a commercial basis," he added.
The Sonali or golden bag is a cellulose-based biodegradable bioplastic alternative to polythene bags. It is developed by Mubarak Ahmad Khan, a scientist at the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission. The cellulose used in Sonali bags is extracted from jute.
Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) will produce the Sonali bags on a commercial basis.
On February 12 last Textiles and Jute Minister Golam Dastagir Gazi told Parliament that the government undertook a pilot project for producing 100,000 jute-made Sonali bags daily to popularise the environment-friendly product across the country.
After expiry of the pilot project, the government might start large-scale commercial production of Sonali bags, he added.
The High Court recently ordered the government to ban single-use plastics in coastal areas and in hotels and restaurants within one year to combat pollution.
Talking about the ban, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan told the FE that the court also ordered the government to enforce the existing laws to curb use of polythene bags.
Considering the adverse impact of poly bags on public health and environment, the government must enforce the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995 and the Mandatory Jute Packaging Act, 2010, she added.
The Section 6(A) of the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995 (amended in 2002), imposed an absolute ban on the manufacture, import, marketing, sale, demonstration for sale, stock, distribution, commercial carriage or commercial use of all kinds or any kind of polythene shopping bags, made of polyethylene or polypropylene.
However, the act allowed use of certain polythene bags intended for export or used for export packaging.
Besides, another notification issued by the DoE in 2002 gave a temporary clearance for using plastic bags for packaging bakery products but the polythene bags with thickness less than 55 microns are banned.
However, taking the advantage of such a provision, some importers abuse the bonded warehouse facility. They import raw materials for polythene bags intended for export, but eventually they sell them in the local market.
As per Section 15 of the law, if anyone manufactures, imports or markets banned polythene bags, he/she would be awarded imprisonment for a term of up to 10 years or fined up to Tk 1.0 million or awarded both forms of punishment.
Besides, if anyone sells, exhibits for sale, stocks, distributes, commercially transports or commercially uses polythene bags he/she would be jailed for six months or fined Tk 10,000 or awarded the both forms of punishment.
Abdul Matin, general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), an environment conservation group, said plastic waste, especially discarded polythene, is one of the major reasons for environmental pollution and reduced navigability of rivers and canals.
Despite having tougher laws, the government is reluctant to enforce those for unknown reasons, he said.
"Authorities concerned often cite the lack of manpower and absence of a substitute for polythene as the reasons for prevalence of the hazardous material," he added.
The environmentalist also said political will is needed to reduce polythene use in the country.
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