It is apparent whatever material our ancestors used to make their drinking tubes with, they consciously or subconciously cared about the consequences. But with the advent of technology, we are often careless about the effect of using plastic straws on our environment.
South American natives were fond of bombilla, typically made from metal alloys like bronze or precious metals, in the 1600s. People in western countries used straws made from wheat and rye in the 1800s.
Then one a sunny day in 1888, an American invented paper straw. Much to his misfortune, several other persons started inventing plastic straws from 1910.
With the plastic straw gaining popularity over paper straw around the world and causing environment pollution, many countries including the Netherlands, England and Australia as well as Seattle and Washington in the US, banned the plastic straw along with the disposable plastic.
According a World Bank report “Towards a Multisectoral Action Plan for Sustainable Plastic Management in Bangladesh”, 977,000 tonnes of plastic was consumed in 2020. These include disposable plastic as well as plastic straw.
About 646 tonnes of plastic waste is collected daily in Dhaka, which is 10 per cent of all wastes generated in Bangladesh.
Since there is no definite data on the use of plastic straw in Bangladesh, we can take a glimpse on plastic straws being used by other nations around the world.
Market research firm Freedonia Group, according to a July 2018 report of New York Times, estimates Americans used 142 billion straws in 2017 while the Food Service Packaging Institute said it estimates that fewer than 250 million straws are used in the USA each day.
People in England, according to an October 2020 report of BBC, use an estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws and 316 million plastic stirrers each year.
Amid such adversity, some people are painstakingly trying to find an eco-friendly alternative to this non-perishable single-use plastic straw.
One such person is Fazlur Rahman. Fazlur Rahman seeks eco-friendly solutions. He is the president Go Green Bangladesh, an environmental conservation group that was launched in 2018 with the goal to popularise sustainable alternatives to plastic. The young entrepreneur has picked jute sticks to fight against disposable plastic straws.
What was your driving force to contribute to the environment? In reply, Fazlur Rahman told Prothom Alo, “Plastic is one of the main reasons for environment pollution and I think can play a part to save the planet. As part of my commitment, I have not used any single plastic straw since 2018.”
“When I started changing my habit from using plastic products, I barely found any suitable alternative in the market. Then the idea of manufacturing eco-friendly products came to me and I started trying with bamboo,” said the young entrepreneur who is from Jashore.
His journey to become an eco-entrepreneur formally began after he left his job on 31 December 2019. He decided to set up a factory at his village in Kalagachi of Jashore during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. But, he faced a challenge to purchase the machinery as its price went up due to lockdown.
“Since I could not afford it, a local engineer lent a hand and built the machines required to set up the factory. Now we operate from the tin-shed factory along with 5000 square feet open space,” he said.
Fazlur Rahman thanked several people who continuously support him since the he quit his job to start his journey to the entrepreneurship. “My sister encouraged me to leave my job and do something by myself. She support me financially and gave me moral support too to open the factory. I also thank scientist and inventor of Sonali Bag Mubarak Ahmad Khan and one of my seniors Zoglul Kamal for standing next to me to make my dream true.”
During the factory set up, Fazlur Rahman had another thing in his mind - women empowerment. “From where I am from, women are the breadwinners. They work at bidi and jute factories. When I opened the factory, I hired only two women and one man,” he said adding currently 15 women and 3 men work at his factory. Each of the women earns at least Tk 200 a day.
Fazlur Rahman at first manufactured various bamboo products including straw. Since bamboo straw is expensive, the young man looked for cheap alternative.
“We used jute sticks to drink date juice during our childhood. One day I thought why don’t I try the jute stick? I made some samples and supplied them to several clients. Their feedback was very positive. Then I started full-scale production,” Fazlur Rahman told Prothom Alo.
According to him, jute straw is the cheapest alternative to single-use plastic straw.
Since Bangladesh is the second largest-country after India in producing jute, sourcing of jute did not become much of challenge for Fazlur Rahman. It was about finding quality jute needed to make the straw.
“Sourcing jute for making jute straw is quite difficult. You cannot use any kinds of jute for this. It needs a special quality jute stick,” he said adding he contacted with farmers for jute cultivation and oversaw the whole process to the end.
“We also help farmers financally. And after the entire process ends, we buy the jute sticks from them and we get that we need.” Jute sticks then go to the factory. Fazlur Rahman told Prothom Alo, “80 per cent of manufacturing process is automated. But we have built customised machine to produce jute straw.”
Hygiene is the main part and they use organic plants and leaves to make the straw hygienic. Besides, their daily production capacity is over 100,000 pieces a day; currently, they use only 5 per cent of it.
Since they do not invest heavily on marketing for the time being, they use social media and personal contacts to reach the clients. Products were promoted on Go Green Bangladesh’s Facebook page. The hard work pays off. They secured deal with several restaurants including Tree House in Dhaka’s Banani.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, Mohammed Salman, owner of Tree House, said they use everything from furniture to dishware that is eco-friendly. They do not even sell carbonated cola drinks or such food that they do not prepare.
“I have seen people using bamboo straws in Vietnam. But bamboo straw has pros and cons. It is expensive as well as reusable. One day, I saw on Facebook Fazlur Rahman working with bamboo products. I contacted him and asked if he can supply me bamboo straw. He did but the price went up.”
Since the price of bamboo straw is high, the restaurateur started looking for an alternative. Mohammed Salman said they were also thinking about whether jute sticks can replace bamboo straws.
“One day I told Fazlur Rahman can we not use paath kathi (jute stick)? Children use jute sticks to drink date juice in rural areas. Let us see what happens,” the restaurateur laughingly said acknowledging that someone from Fazlur Rahman’s team had already started working on similar idea.
So, Fazlur Rahman made straws from jute sticks and supplied this to Tree House. The restaurant first ran experiment on customers with jute straw. “Since there is the coronavirus pandemic, nobody wants a reusable straw. The customers’ response was very good. Both local and foreign customers like it very much,” said the restaurateur.
Though Go Green Bangladesh is the first to introduce jute straw in Bangladesh, there is a big international market. Both Mohammed Salman and Fazlur Rahman said separately they have plan to export jute straw to international markets including USA, Australia, Canada and Germany as Bangladesh has a chance to compete with India and China.
Bangladesh must pioneer green growth and beat plastic pollution to attain its vision of becoming an upper-middle-income country by 2031.
The National Action Plan for Sustainable Plastic Management targets to recycle 50 per cent of plastics by 2025, single-use plastic by 90 per cent by 2026, and reduce plastic waste generation by 30 per cent by 2030 from 2020-21 baseline, according to a World Bank statement.
Fazlur Rahman’s Go Green Bangladesh also joined the fight to beat plastic. Their main goal is to provide sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives to plastic products and solve the on-going crisis caused by plastic.
Go Green Bangladesh also manufactures other bamboo products including bamboo water bottles, straws, trays and chopping boards. The organisation also promotes and markets Sonali Bag made from jute fibre.
Explaining their plan for future, Fazlur Rahman said they are now working to upcycle non-valuable plastic and cloth and cigarette butts to turn them into valuable assets. “With the help of the people concerned, we can solve the problem caused by plastic straw and earn millions of dollars. Above all, we need help from environmentally aware people in our fight to make a plastic free world,” he added.