Rise of the polythene monster
Polythene bags are here to stay, no matter what!
Faced with an imminent environmental disaster, the government in January 2002 banned the use of polythene bags in Dhaka and eventually enforced it elsewhere in the country.
The move immediately brought applause from the environmentalists and residents but it was claimed that it cost more than 18,000 workers their jobs, as several hundred small factories were shut down.
The flip side of the story is none of these workers ever lost their jobs and only a handful of these factories were actually shut down. The business of importing raw materials, production and marketing of polythene bags continue till today, 15 years after it was banned.
With factories situated in obscure places of Keraniganj and in the old parts of the city, the supply chain of polythene bags looks as formidable as any other popular item in the market today. On the other hand, the monetary gains from the illegal trade of polythene bags in Bangladesh are estimated to run into millions of US dollars.
A silent environmental disaster has been going on over the years too. In all the big cities of the country, discarded polythene bags are the main culprits for clogging up our drainage systems.
The perennial water logging problems in Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Barisal, Rajshahi and Sylhet, especially during the monsoon season, are a glaring legacy of poor governance combined with the lack of awareness about our environment. The poor individuals living in the slums, quite often in squalid conditions, pay the bulk of the price for this man-made disaster. In Dhaka, Chittagong and other cities, densely populated impoverished areas are inundated with the filthiest of sewage water entering homes. Men, women and children living in these areas are, sometimes for days, exposed to serious health hazards.
During the ongoing monsoon, many city dwellers are seen wading through filthy knee-deep water on the city’s main thoroughfares.
A study in 2001 had showed that back in those days every Dhaka household discarded four polythene bags on average each day, and staggeringly its residents altogether were responsible for disposing about ten million of these bags each day.
The increasingly crowded city, already infested with air, noise and other forms of pollution, has surely more polythene bags to discard every day, more than a decade later.
Jabbar Sheikh, owner of a departmental store in Razabazar says it is too late now to ban polythene bags. “We cannot run our business without polythene bags because it (polythene bag) has become a culture in our society,” he adds.
This unwanted intruder has penetrated the core of our increasingly consumerist culture. Throughout the country, in kitchen markets, shops, restaurants, street vending points and even hawkers use single-use bags for trading, with its size depending on the commodity sold.
In the rural Bangladesh, polythene litters the agricultural lands too; costing farmers valuable time clearing them, and in some cases even depriving farmers of a better harvest.
The situation became so disastrous that when the government launched a cleanup project of the four main riverbeds around Dhaka a few years ago, the authorities were confronted with a four-foot deep layer of polythene. It cost the project twice the amount budgeted in order to remove some of the huge deposits from the riverbeds. Today, the situation has worsened, particularly in the case of the river Buriganga, which is being choked to death with polythene and other deadly industrial wastes.
“We heard that it takes a sheet of polythene 130 years to degrade into the soil,” says an official source at the Department of Environment (DoE), requesting anonymity.
“It was a mistake in the first place to ban it before finding an environmentally sound alternative,” he adds, “it (polythene bag) is user-friendly, cheap and therefore demand for it is so overwhelming that the legislation has automatically taken a back seat. If you ask the DoE’s law enforcement section, you will see our magistrates are regularly conducting raids on manufacturers and sealing off their premises.”
Introduction of polythene bags in the late eighties instantly wiped out a deep-rooted tradition from our country. In those days every household in Bangladesh used a long- lasting and biodegradable jute bag for daily shopping.
According to the Wikipedia, 80 million tons of polythene (a product that is derived from natural gas and petroleum) is produced globally every year. A huge amount is imported for packaging industries in the country and more for the manufacturing of bags; a use that has turned into a nightmare for millions of urbanites.
Report and photographs by: Morshed Ali Khan
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