From the outset of its development by German scientist in the fifties, plastic material has gained traction for its wide varieties of use. Now from making crockeries to home appliances to other electronic products, including computer, medical or scientific equipment, the usage of plastic is commonplace. Again, the use of polybag or polythene bag, which is another form of plastic, is prevalent at roadside shops to kitchen markets to supper shops for carrying items they sell to their customers. While factors like thin, light, affordable, and easy available have made it a popular choice among the users over other forms of bags or containers, its damaging impacts on human health and environment are undeniable. Given the fact that a single-use poly bag takes more than 400 years to decompose, and public awareness about its harmful effects among citizenry is at its nadir, the ubiquity of polybag is indeed a matter of concern.
Once jute rope or cotton bags and cane or bamboo baskets were widely used to carry grocery or shopping items. People were accustomed to using these eco-friendly products and they would use or reuse a bag for months. But the situation started to take a dramatic turn in the 1980s when polythene bags were introduced in Bangladesh. It replaced the traditional jute bags or cane baskets at distressingly fast rate in every household in Bangladesh. Now every vegetable seller in the kitchen and fish markets use polybags. It is also available in the grocery shops, general stores and even with the street side hawkers and vendors. In fact, the inroad of poly bag is now here there and everywhere. A cursory look at any part of Dhaka or elsewhere in the country is guaranteed to expose the ugly spectre of plastic bags either hanging from phone and electric wires, lying on sunshades of buildings, floating on stagnant water or water bodies, waving or flapping gleefully from garbage heaps and clogging gutters, or simply blowing around in the wind in a street or alley.Not only does the all-pervasive presence of plastic bags cause an eyesore; it also has disastrous impacts human health and environment. A survey report has it that there are ten feet polythene layers on the bed of the Buriganga, which is striking the death knell of the river – the lifeline of Dhaka. A recent news report shows that a single family uses four polythene bags every day and around 2 crore polythene bags are being used in Dhaka on a daily basis. These bags are eventually dumped in sewage lines or on the streets of Dhaka city, posing threat to human health and environment.
We know waterlogging is one of the major woes of city dwellers. Even a light to moderate rain causes deluge or water stagnation at many places of the city for several hours. Overflowed sewers clogged mainly with plastic bags or other plastic materials are said to be the prime reason for such a situation, according to experts. It is worth noting that about 80 percent of waterlogging in Dhaka city is due to poor drainage system blocked by polybags or plastic materials.
Plastic bags have also detrimental effects on marine lives or aquatic resources. This is because, at times many endangered species, including fish, dolphin, turtles, or other mammals under the sea, were reported to have been dead after they had ingested plastic material in mistake for food. In addition, polybags reduce the fertility of soil and pollute water, adversely affecting agriculture of a county and its economy. Moreover, it has harmful effects on public health. According to chemical experts, during re-moulding plastic bags, a chemical agent called plasticizer is used for making it soft. This agent remains in the plastic item after production. As a result, food wrapped up in polythene can be contaminated with plasticizer, which is harmful for human body, may cause cancer, skin diseases, allergy, gastronomic illness and other health problems.
A few steps were taken by the successive governments to contain havoc created by discarded non-biodegradable polythene. On January 1, 2002, the government imposed a ban on production, marketing and use of polythene (below 100-micron thick) in Dhaka city, followed by a nationwide ban on April 8 of the same year. Before that, the Environment Conservation Act was enacted in 1995. The law stipulates ten years’ rigorous imprisonment, or a maximum fine of Tk 10 lakh, or both as a punishment for manufacturing and marketing polythene shopping bag. The sentence can be given only by the Environmental Court. The fine for using polythene shopping bags for purposes other than export trade is Tk 500. In 2010, the government passed a law – Mandatory Jute Packaging Act 2010 – providing for compulsory use of jute in packaging of several agricultural products to discourage use polythene bags.
Needless to say, every time the initial awareness campaign that came with the ban or enactment of the laws had worked well and people intuitively had switched over to the shopping bags made of biodegradable materials. But once the primary hubbub had died down producers and users of polythene bags went back to business as usual with the manufacturing and use of polythene bags. There is no denying that a lot of damage has already been done to our environment. Therefore, it is imperative that all stakeholders became fully aware of the impact of polythene on health and environment and acted together to put an end to the threat.
As a part of it, officials concerned ought to enforce the ban on polythene production and resume drive and surveillance to sustain round-the-year without further ado. Citizens on their part have responsibly for maintaining healthy environment for their own sake. We should not forget that we are temporary being but the filth we produce will last almost forever. Thus, a sensible attitude is expected from the citizenry while using or disposing of such products. They do not necessarily have to learn new skills; rather what they have to do is remember and practise old habit – using jute or rope bags, cane baskets, or reusable plastic bags or baskets to transport things. Only strict monitoring, proper implementation of the law and exemplary punishment for the violators of it, mass campaign, and public awareness can protect us and our environment from the danger looming large for plastic pollution.
The writer is an Associate Engineer, Thakral Information Systems Pvt. Ltd. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org