Is plastic the deadliest polluter our environment has yet to encounter?

If we plant a seed today, years, even decades later the seed will take the appearance of a giant tree, shading travellers, bearing fruits, and cleaning the air around us. But what if we plant a corrupted seed that grows to bring destruction instead of good, rather than shading travellers, consumes them? This evil seed is no different from pollution, and in the case of plastic pollution, the consequences are turning up to be deadly.

This year's World Environment Day is dedicated to eradicating plastic pollution. "Beat Plastic Pollution", the theme for World Environment 2018, urges governments, industry, communities, and individuals to come together and explore sustainable alternatives and urgently reduce the production and excessive use of single-use plastic polluting our oceans, damaging marine life and threatening human health.

"This World Environment Day we're calling on everyone who uses plastic to refuse single use-plastics," Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, wrote in the official World Environment Day website. "The plastic straw in your drink will be used for less than 20 minutes but will take 100 years to degrade in the environment. The same can be said for plastic bags, cutlery or cups - in fact, countless things that we take for granted."

According to UN Environment statistics, in the next 10-15 years, global plastic production is projected to nearly double. Meanwhile, up to 13 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean each year, killing 100,000 marine animals.

World Environment Day is the UN's most important day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. Since it began in 1974, it has grown to become a global platform for public outreach that is widely celebrated in over 100 countries. Every World Environment Day has a different global host country, where the official celebrations take place. The focus on the host country helps highlight the environmental challenges it faces, and supports the effort to address them. This year's host is India.

The Bangladesh context

According to a 2016 study conducted by Environment and Social Development Organisation (ESDO), 60 most popular and commonly used beauty and cleaning products in Bangladesh, including face wash, detergent, body wash, nail polish, toothpaste, and face and body scrub contain these harmful microbeads.

The study titled 'Microbeads Pollution Scenario in Bangladesh' says every month around 8,000 billion microbeads flow into water bodies in and around three major cities -- Dhaka, Chattogram and Sylhet. In Dhaka city alone, some 7,000 billion microbeads get in the surrounding water bodies and wastelands. In Chittagong city, the number is some 1,000 billion while it is around 200 billion in Sylhet city.

Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, additional research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), told UNB that Bangladesh is perhaps one of the countries with fastest growth in consumption of plastic products during the last decade.

Between 2005 and 2014, plastic consumption in urban areas of the country has increased significantly (by 169 pc although overall national consumption has increased by 16.2 pc) which is even higher compared to other countries and regions such as North America (32 pc), Asia (80 pc), Europe (37 pc) and world (25 pc).

From poisoning and injuring marine life to the ubiquitous presence of plastics in people's food to disrupting human hormones and causing major life-threatening diseases and early puberty, the exponential growth of plastics is threatening planet's survival.

Dr Ahmed Kamruzzaman Majumdar, the Head of Environment Science Department of Stamford University of Bangladesh, said in a seminar recently that micro plastic particle microbeads are being used in soap, facial creams, toothpastes, detergents and other toiletries and those are being spread to the environment. He said as the particles are very minute, they can enter into fish through their foods, and thus it goes in human body which may even cause cancer.

Respites underway

Some projects are truly making strides in endeavours to gradually eliminate the use of plastic.

Bangladesh Petrochemical Company Ltd. (BPLC) has established itself as the first post-consumer PET bottle recycling plant in Bangladesh. Starting its operation in July 2012, BPCL has set up a plant that is capable of producing 10,500 metric tonnes (MT) of recycled PET resin per year using used PET bottles as raw materials.

BPCL is more than just a recycled PET flakes and resin producer. BPLC is a company with an environmental commitment to lessen greenhouse gas emissions and a social commitment to improve the life of waste pickers.

BPCL is currently producing PET resins in its Narayanganj factory. The loose bottles BPCL purchases from local collection shops are first manually sorted before bailing. The baled bottles then go through a Metal Separator that removes the Fe and non-Fe metals. After that, an Automatic Polymer Sorting System separates PVC, HDPE and other plastic materials from the PET bottles. The PET bottles are then manually checked for the second time so any remaining metal, PVC, PP or PE parts are removed. The bottles are then crushed into 10mm flakes which are taken through Multi Stage Hot Washing and Drying Systems. The result is flakes that are clean, of very high quality and free of any foreign materials.

Their European machineries transform the flakes into high quality resins suitable for food and non-food related usage. Their operation is ISO certified and food grade resin manufacturing machineries are FDA approved. Presently, the PET product industry in Bangladesh is completely dependent on imports from other nations.

Though there is a ban on it, the manufacturing and use of polythene shopping bag keep growing across the country as the authorities concerned have failed to come up with a suitable alternative to the hazardous object over the last 15 years, experts observed.

They also said the use of non-biodegradable polythene bag has become a common sight everywhere from shopping malls to kitchen markets due to the non-enforcement of law, lack of the 'government's good will' and adequate efforts to create awareness among people about the risk of polythene bag and its adverse impacts on the environment.

Even, the immediate past Director General (DG) of the Department of Environment (DoE) Raisul Alam Mondal thinks checking the use of polythene bag is a daunting task due to the absence of cost-effective and environment-friendly alternative.

Under the Bangladesh Environment Protect (Amendment 2002) Act 1995, the government in 2007 allowed the production of 55-micron thick polythene for the packaging of garment products, medicine, fish fry, sapling and some other goods and products which virtually contributed to rise in production and the use of the harmful object, Mandal added.

However, there is good news that Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) is going to come up with jute-made biodegradable poly bags to replace polythene ones.

Amid the growing concern about its harmful effects on the environment, the then government in 2002 banned the manufacture, marketing and use of polythene shopping bags across the country.

Contacted, urban expert and former chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) Prof Nazrul Islam said, "Nearly three decades ago people used to go to markets with reusable jute or cloth bags in their hands to buy essential items. Due to change in the lifestyle and easy availability of polythene bags, people, both in urban and rural areas, hardly exercise this old habit."

Even, no one, from sellers to customers, feels the use of polythene bag is illegal and harmful for lack of enforcement of law and awareness, he observed.

Prof Nazrul said the government will have to properly enforce the law, stop the production of polythene bags and conduct massive awareness campaign to make people aware of its bad effects and bring a change in their lifestyle. "The government must persuade both the customers and shopkeepers to use environment-friendly bags discarding such harmful ones. We'll have to cut our dependency on polythene bags and go to the market with reusable jute or cloth bags as we did in the past."

Chairman of Poribesh Banchao Andolon Abu Naser Khan said the polythene bags are not biodegradable which seriously affect the environment and reduce the fertility of lands alongside harming the biodiversity and human health in many ways. "This bag takes over 400 years to decompose in soil."

He said the DoE should conduct regular drives against polythene manufacturing factories and check their marketing alongside making cheaper jute, clothes and paper bags available in market as its alternatives.

Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan general secretary Abdul Matin said the government can stop the use of polythene bags completely within six months if it sincerely enforces the ban; launches drives against illegal polythene bag-making factories and shut those. "People will surely change their habit when polythene bags are made unavailable in the market."

Asked why they cannot check illegal production of polythene bag and its use, the DoE DG said, "We often conduct mobile courts across the country, including in the capital, but the trend of using polythene bags is growing for lack of its alternative."

Under the circumstances, BJMC chief scientific adviser Dr Mobarak Ahmad Khan said they showcased the environment-friendly jute made 'Sonali poly bags' at an international trade fair in the capital as an alternative to the polythene one.

He said they will initially supply the bags to chain shops and garment factories and gradually they will make it available in the market to replace the polythene bags. "We still didn't fix its price, but it won't be so cheaper like the polythene one."

What next?

From growing demands for the Earth's limited resources to more unpredictable and extreme weather, our environment faces unprecedented threats today. We must find better solutions and faster than ever before. Giving up is not an option for us. Now is the time to act together - regardless of our age - for the sake of our planet.

We truly won't sustain if our environment doesn't. We must understand this factor. The reality is that the only way this problem can be addressed is by individuals and companies around the world agreeing to implement practices that reduce waste on every level. We must remember that because plastic doesn't break down easily (if ever), recycling plastic means that it is still plastic, just being used for a different purpose. So it would be better if we could find a suitable alternative for plastic, before it wrecks irrevocable havoc and damage on our environment.

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