Jute, an eco-friendly alternative of Polythene, grows in plenty in Bangladesh. Popularizing jute could have been beneficial for Bangladesh in many aspects. However, legal ban on polythene has not seen notable success in over 20 years.
Bangladesh became the first nation in the world to ban plastic and polythene bags in 2002. Despite a blanket ban on the use of polythene, its usage has tripled over the past 15 years. According to the World Bank. In 2005, the average consumption of plastic in urban areas was 3.30 kilograms, which stood at 9 kilograms in 2020.
The use of polythene in 2019-20 was 592,223 metric tons, with 78,000 tons of poly waste during COVID-19. A World Bank study revealed that Dhaka alone generated around 646 tons of plastic waste, which represents around 10% of Bangladesh’s total plastic waste in 2020. Thus, it’s evident that the ban on polythene has been unsuccessful in the country. This article examines the factors or causes behind the failure of the polythene ban in the unique socio-economic context of Bangladesh.
Polythene Usage vs Waste
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Adverse Impacts of Polythene
Polythene and plastic bags have become an integral part of our day to day lives due to their widespread use in our households and industries. Due to its durability, light weight, and low cost, polythene has become ubiquitous, whether in supermarkets, street stores, or high-end shopping malls. Consumers simply throw polythene bags away after a single use. These bags eventually enter the drains, sewage pipelines, canals, rivers, and open areas, contaminating the soil and water, and negatively affecting human health. As polythene is non-biodegradable, it remains in the environment for thousands of years if not correctly recycled. Following are non-exhaustively FOUR harmful ways polythene affects human and animal health as well as the nature.
The Law in Question
Plastic products, particularly polythene bags, were first widely introduced in the Bangladeshi market in the early 1980s. Due to their light weight, cheaper price, and ease of disposal, polythene bags became part and parcel of our day to day lives. The adverse impacts of polythene bags became conspicuous after the 1998 flood. Massive water-logging was caused by the polythene bags, as the sewerage lines were clogged with heaps of these bags.
Upon acknowledging the harmful impacts of polythene, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) amended the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995, to put an end to the rapid use of polythene. Section 6(A) outlined an absolute ban on polythene bags virtually everywhere, including in manufacturing, stock, sale, marketing, and commercial purposes. If someone disobeys the law, they will face a fine of 50 thousand to 10 lakh and imprisonment of 1-10 years.
Polythenes was widely introduced
Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995 was enacted
Adverse impacts of polythene became apparent due to the flood
Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995 was amended to include provisions for polythene ban
Draft regulation was put in place on using plastic
High Court issued an order banning single-use plastic in coastal areas and all hotels and motels.
In 2018, a draft regulation was put in place on using plastic for packaging purposes in food, beverage, and agro-input industries. Furthermore, in 2020, the High Court of Bangladesh issued an order banning single-use plastic in coastal areas and in all hotels and motels across Bangladesh. Additionally, the 8th Five Year Plan emphasized on sustainably managing plastic waste.
Why has polythene ban failed?
Successive governments in Bangladesh have failed to enforce the polythene ban, which is evident from the omnipresent use of polythene in virtually every sphere of our lives. Field-level bureaucrats, including law enforcement agencies, often look the other way or don’t even consider the polythene ban an important law to implement. Sometimes law enforcement personnel take bribes to set people free who are found in violation of the ban.
Additionally, the polythene manufacturing industry employs a huge workforce who will lose their jobs if the government heavily cracks down on these factories. At the same time, the polythene seller businesses and buyer business groups significantly contribute to our economy through revenues, which makes it difficult to enforce the ban.
A lack of coordination among the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Commerce exacerbates the problem. The ministries and pertinent agencies under successive governments have failed to proactively monitor and enforce the ban on polythene. Most anti-polythene drives are conducted in factories, not in shopping malls or shops where polythene bags are widely used. The withdrawal of 5% duty on polythene bags in budget 2022-23 has also contributed to the problem.
Whereas in 1999, Bangladesh had only 300 polybag factories, the number now stands between 700 and 1,000 by 2021, spanning rural areas. During the pandemic, over 78,000 tons of polybag waste were produced by illegal polythene manufacturers. A study has revealed that around 1.2 million tons of plastic waste were shipped to Bangladesh from 2018-20, originating from the US and UK – overlooking the blanket ban on importing any type of waste in Bangladesh.
The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) has introduced jute bags, which are widely known as ‘Sonali bags or ‘golden bags.’ These jute bags are environmentally friendly. However, these eco-friendly bags are still relatively expensive in comparison with the polythene bags. Most people don’t want to spend too much on the bags that they use to shop. Hence, they find cheaper alternatives like polythene. Moreover, a vast majority of individuals do not prefer to carry their shopping bags to grocery stores or markets. So, they go for the polythene bags, which are already readily available in the market. Thus, a lack of cost-effective, cheaper alternatives has made the situation worse.
Many people in Bangladesh are not fully informed about the adverse impacts of polythene bags on the environment and human health. Even if they are aware, they look the other way – choosing their convenience over their own health. As the harmful impacts of the polythene bags are not directly visible, it’s difficult for the general populace to be self-motivated in not using polythene altogether. A lack of public awareness programs has also contributed to the ill-informedness.
Many people in Bangladesh are not aware of the harmful effects of polythene bags on the environment. As a result, they continue to use them without realizing the damage they are causing.
About the Author
A R Tahseen Jahan is a Research Associate at The Confluence and a student of Development Studies at the University of Dhaka. She is also serving as an Editor at Dhaka University Law and Politics Review.