The Financial Express

Purging plastic: Reconsidering renewables  

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: February 03, 2020 21:04:01 | Updated: February 03, 2020 22:18:36

Purging plastic: Reconsidering renewables   

'Sonali bag' emerged as a breakthrough in 2018 to purge plastic from common usage. It was developed by multi-awarded scientist, Dr. Mubarak Ahmad Khan, the Chief Biological Advisor of the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC), as an alternative to polythene bags, which take literally hundreds of years to biologically degrade. Jute, which can degrade biologically in months, was once the people's 'Golden Fibre'. Reviving it, even if for different purposes, holds the key to leadership in a world of 'renewable' living.

Dr. Khan's contribution could banish many fears. One of these fears is how melted plastic, under the glazing tropic sun, can easily enter the food chain, either through crops cultivated on land, or being washed into streams, and thereby as food fishes nibble on. Another is how much of an environmental havoc it is becoming, such as generating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from ocean-flows of plastic, in turn, suffocating fish of all sizes and turtles, almost to the point of extinction. The list of mishaps goes on, as too the amount of plastic being dumped: 1.00 million plastic bags being reportedly dumped every minute of every day, adding up to half a trillion pieces annually (From "Jute instead of Plastic 2.0," a BASUG Report, 2018-19).

One BJMC hope is to export up to 10 million such bags each month as it galvanises the factory production. That breakthrough is but a small step in the right direction for a country so intertwined with rivers, a diet based on fish, and a current search for export alternatives based on fish. Many more such breakthroughs will be needed between a 'renewable' innovation locally and global 'renewable' leadership. On the one hand, Bangladesh must live up to the commitment it made in 2002 to ban the production of plastic bags, as so many countries have done, yet in vain. On the other, with a transition from traditional society into an industrialising community too short to forget, or too recent to blot out its verdant countryside, it stands as a potential leader to spearhead the 'renewable' counter-charge against 'non-renewable' institutionalisation of both production and consumption, and thereby society-building and civilisation-making.

Jute has again come to the rescue of the country. It was the underlying rational that fostered the inequalities within Pakistan's artificial existence until Bangladesh emerged from their ashes. It was then the plastic-replete synthetic competition that displaced jute at the forefront of the country's resources. Two scores and more years of RMG (ready-made garments) flirtation was enough to leave jute in comatose. Even worse, that synthesis, in particular plastic, fed the garments being knitted or sewed, inflated plastic usage, and spawned the environmental and health decay so pervasive today. Indeed, the rapid climb up the developmental ladder could not, frankly, have been so smooth had it not been for plastic: from the doormat we wipe our shoes on (to keep Dhaka's dirt outside our home), to the refrigerated containers storing the food we consume, or the sweets we relish, to the pen we pick up as the first-step towards educating our children, to the variety of clothes we wear, the shopping bags through which we must show our own wealth with, the seats in our new automobile, indeed, in every product bearing a 'developing' country's trademark, we rank among the top half-a-dozen countries feeding that Great Pacific Garbage Patch half a planet away through our disposals.

It is about time we climb the planet restoration ladder, especially when populism and other narrow-minded policy prescriptions begin to blind the very developed countries, which should lead this counter-attack, from the global damage being done. When we develop the appropriate mindset to do so, we will find the many opportunities any breakthrough brings.

For a start, our countryside can again wrest public attention away from factories by expanding the 'renewable' resources at our disposal. Jute production can not only be incentivised, but also converted into a world-demanded commodity. True our population size, having more than doubled than when jute was last behind our economic steering-wheel, might constrain immediate export earnings, but the spillovers of growth in 'renewable' commodities open precisely those new opportunities for our sagging business community. In addition to pure traditional items like carpet-backing, coarse clothing, and rope-like products, hybridising simply with other 'renewable' products might put more emphasis on research and development, that is R/D, than just assembly-line input-output profit calculations. We will find many alternatives to plastic products, just as 'Sonali bag' proved to be.

Resurrecting the jute sector also exposes a related, though socially controversial commodity: hemp, capable of being mistaken as marijuana. Recent studies show not only that hemp has far lower content of tetrahydrocannibino (THC), the ingredient promoting psychoactive consequences, such as hallucinations (.03 per cent by 30 per cent, by comparison), but also a far more versatile replacement of plastic because of its high biodegradable cellulose content (of three-quarters to four-fifths from Alpha cellulose and hemicelluloses). The output could be as sturdy as steel, far more renewable, and a huge environmental relief world-wide. Further research may open up many more arenas where common market commodities can be redirected the world over. These are not new discoveries, but the instant-gratification mindset brought about by the shift to neo-liberalism 30-odd years ago has prevented us from investing in longer-term, research-based discoveries of alternatives to earth-damaging, health-corroding products.

Safeguards against the drift towards marijuana production and transaction should not be hard in a country as small as ours, and where every citizen is fully cognisant of what the next-door neighbour is producing. Besides, increasing numbers of countries have been legalising marijuana, and among the consequences has been the growth of much-needed revenue from a hitherto outlawed commodity bailing other financially-struck sectors. Yet, it is in the new avenues researchers can extract, not just from hemp, but also jute, that will attract investors and satisfy the growing proportion of environmentally conscientious consumers. Just as jute cultivation helps prevent land erosion, especially off-shore, so too does hemp utilise far less water than, say, cultivating cotton, while also being a vital soil-rotation crop.

Further research should explore our other crops, trees, and indeed, land-use for more 'renewable' outlets, since here might lie our own 'pot of gold'. Not only do we have too little land for which long-term planning is needed in utilisation, but how we use that land can also be upgraded by far through serious R/D investments. Posterity will carry a far more favourable impression of our concurrent materialistic generations.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Dean (Acting), School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (SLASS) and Head, Global Studies & Governance Program Independent University, Bangladesh, imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd



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