Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

BANGLADESH: Ban on Plastic Bags Changes Shopping Habits

Tabibul Islam

DHAKA, Jan 29 2002 (IPS) - Shopkeepers here in the Bangladeshi capital are refusing to deliver their wares in polythene bags, plastic packaging that had become an indispensable part of the people’s shopping habits and everyday lives.

Likewise, millions of shoppers are now using totes made of biodegradable materials such as jute, cotton and paper to carry goods.

This change in habits has come with the imposition of the new government in January, finally, of a regulation banning polybags here in Dhaka. By March, government insiders say, this ban may be imposed throughout the rest of Bangladesh.

One official even says that the proposed law covering this would also contain provisions on the punishment of those polluting environment through the use of polythene, a synthetic resin used for making plastic shopping bags, food containers and packaging.

Describing polythene as the people’s enemy for its destructive effects on public health and the national economy, Environment and Forest Mister Shahjahan Siraj says that the whole country has become a victim of this unfriendly substance.

Siraj notes that the once mighty Buriganga River that flows past Dhaka has lost its navigability while its water has become poisonous because of the millions of polybags dumped into it over the years.

Experts also say that in Dhaka alone, drainage congestion due to trash and polybags has meant an annual expense of 20 million U.S. dollars, which go largely to repair damaged roads and treat diseases.

The use of polythene in plastic bags began in Bangladesh in the early 1980s. The polybags were instant hits with the people not only because they were usually supplied free by the store, but also because they were light and waterproof.

The polybags were so popular that production was increased quickly to meet demand. In 1983, there were only two polythene factories in Dhaka. Today, there are about 800 plastic and polythene factories in Bangladesh, most of them situated in and around the capital.

But the advantages in using polybags were outnumbered by the tremendous disadvantages it brought.

These ranged from health hazards, to environmental and soil degradation leading to the loss of agricultural fertility.

Quoting a study by the International Rice Research Institute, Dr Moyeen Uddin Ahmed of the Bangladesh Agricultural University says that polythene does not allow the emission of the toxic gases and pollutants from the earth. This blocks ultraviolet rays, which are key to the natural fertilisation of the soil, and prevent them from reaching the earth.

Disposed polythene bags also clogged drainage and sewer systems that caused waterlogging and the spread of harmful microbes and bacteria.

Here in Dhaka, the residents’ behaviour regarding trash and polybags had much to do with the worsening environmental degradation in the city.

Majority of the people of Dhaka seemed to have a tendency of indiscriminately throwing various wastes, including used polybags, in the city’s streets or open spaces.

Household trash were often packed in polybags as well, and then disposed of wherever people found it convenient. Because they are non- biodegradable, the polybags “choke” soil and waterways.

Health experts and environmentalists alike have also pointed out that polythene bags dumped near households usually become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, heightening the risk of outbreaks of dengue fever, filariasis and malaria.

The use of polythene itself to wrap or hold food can pose other health risks as well, say some experts.

Dr Hossain Shahriar of the local activist group Environment and Social Development Organisation (ESDO) quotes the Korean Institute of Health Research in saying that polythene-wrapped fish and meat generate a kind of heat that creates radiation, which in turn makes the food poisonous.

He adds that wrapping food in polythene makes it vulnerable to anaerobic bacteria, which could cause skin disease and cancer.

Research done by nutrition expert Dr Shashwati Roy of Kolkata Medical College Hospital in India, meanwhile, indicates that taking tea in a polycup can be a cause of ulcer and cancer.

Observers say that the effective enforcement of the ban so far indicates that there is now greater public awareness of environmental issues, which have also become popular.

To be sure, the imposition of the ban had been preceded by a widely publicised campaign launched by the government, in cooperation with some NGOs and the media, against the baneful impacts of polythene on public health and the environment.

Then again, this is not the first time that there has been an official move to ban the use of polybags. As early as 1994, the then Bangladesh National Party (BNP) government took a similar initiative, but had to abandon it in the face of strong internal and external opposition.

The immediate past government, led by the Awami League, also took a decision to ban polythene, but later bowed to the wishes of pro- polythene lobbyists.

In truth, when the present BNP-led government announced its decision in late October, polythene factory owners raised a hue and cry, and even filed a writ in the High Court challenging the ban. Later, however, the High Court handed down a judgement rejecting that petition.

And although some labour groups pointed out that the ban would adversely affect the polythene industry’s 25,000 workers, the government stood pat on its decision.

Siraj had even shot back: “The lives of 130 million people of Bangladesh can not be endangered for the sake of employment of a few thousand employees of polythene factories.”

Still, the minister has since said that the government would extend loans and other financial benefits on liberal terms to the affected factory owners so they could switch to other enterprises, while seeing to the rehabilitation of the laid-off workers.

As it is, some observers say the polythene factory owners and workers could well consider entering the jute industry, which has been given a second lease on life following the ban.

Sales of jute bags registered an abnormal fall in local market after introduction of polybags, posing a serious threat to the survival of the jute industry. The recent polybag ban could only help revive the jute products market, say expectant jute mill operators.

The state-run Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC), which runs 20 jute mills in the country, is already poised to produce 300,000 jute bags of different sizes every day to meet the rising demand.

The BJMC has also taken steps to integrate private operators with both production and marketing activities of jute shopping bags. Most of the major NGOs and more than 100 handicraft makers are now producing and marketing jute bags since the BJMC alone is hard-pressed to satisfy the market.

In addition, many Dhaka entrepreneurs are now taking in hundreds of the unemployed to produce jute, cotton and paper bags.

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