On Friday morning last week, schoolteacher Abdur Rashid bought a hilsa fish, a kilo of potato and some tomatoes.
He carried the items in polythene bags given by the salesmen at Dhaka’s Malibagh kitchen market.
Hosne-ara Begum, a homemaker in Shantinagar, bought a dress for her daughter from a city market this week. The seller put the dress into a plastic bag.
More than a decade after Bangladesh slapped a ban amid growing concern about its harmful effects on the environment, the polythene bags have staged a comeback.
The use of plastic bags by the vegetable vendors to designer shops has been growing despite the ban on the use, production and storing of the environment-harming plastic bags of less than 55 micron thickness.
The comeback is attributed to lax enforcement of the law, easy availability of plastic bags and near non-availability of environment-friendly alternatives such as jute bags.
When the government slapped the ban on polythene bags of less than 55 micron thickness in January 2002, it was hailed as a major step towards reducing environmental pollution.
The ban worked for some years following the ban that made illegal the production, sale, use, import, distribution and storage of the bags.
That success now appears to be waning and many like 50-year-old schoolteacher Rashid have even forgotten the restriction.
“It didn’t feel that the polythene bags are banned,” he said when asked why he did not protest when the salesmen provided him with the bags. “There’s hardly any awareness campaign about the ban,” he said.
The government banned polythene bags using the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995.
Under the law, there is a complete ban on production, import, marketing, sales, display, storing, distribution, transportation and use of polythene of less than 55 micron thickness for business purposes.
In support of the 2002 ban the government in 2010 enacted another law, titled the ‘Mandatory Jute Packaging Act 2010’ for the compulsory use of jute in packaging products instead.
Plastic bags are harmful in many ways. The used bags eventually find their ways into drains, canals, rivers, parks and streets harming the environment.
Environment experts say the worst thing about polythene is that it is non-biodegradable and its decomposition takes at least 400 years.
In capital Dhaka, the widespread use of plastic shopping bags was seen as a major cause of clogging the drains causing water logging.
Poribesh Bachao Andolan, an environment watchdog, says nearly 1,000 polythene factories operate across the country but most of them are located in old Dhaka.
The Department of Environment (DoE) conducted 14 raids on factories in the last three months and seized 790 kg polythene bags from parts of Dhaka Metropolitan areas.
DoE ex-Additional Director General Abdus Sobhan said the use of banned polythene bags had seen a sharp fall in the initial years after the ban.
He said the banned product has made a strong comeback for three key reasons.
He cited the reasons as non-enforcement of laws in controlling polythene bags, the government’s failure to make jute goods available and cheaper and lack of interest by jute bag producers in the face of more price-competitive plastic bags. “It’s a complete failure of the DoE.” Sobhan said.
Director General of Bangladesh Jute Research Institute Md Kamal Uddin said jute goods will not be popular until polythene bags are banished from the market.
He said huge items produced by Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation have been lying in stores for lack of demand. “Jute bags have no demand in the market amid the presence of polythene bags.”
“Jute products will never be cost-effective, if polythene is not removed,” he said.
Abu Naser Khan of Poribesh Bachao Andolon said the DoE should conduct drives against polythene manufacturing factories alongside controlling its marketing.
He suggested strict enforcement of the ban on plastic bags, making jute bags handy and cheaper so the products become competitive with polythene bags.
Dhaka regional director of DoE Towfiqul Arif said polythene bags returned to the market due to its high demand in the absence of cost-effective jute bags.
He underscored the need for creating more public awareness about the harmful effects of polythene bags.