We have ranked fourth among 180 countries in the environmental performance index, but from the bottom, not the top. Bangladesh ranked at 177 in the global Environmental Performance Index published two weeks ago. Earlier, in 2020, Bangladesh ranked at 162. This report is published every two years by the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That means, in two years we have fallen back by 15 steps in the index.
This pitiful position of Bangladesh was predictable. Time and again we are appearing on the top of global indexes for the worst air pollution, soil pollution and water pollution. The hills and forests in the country are being wiped out. And what can be said about the rivers? This country is known to be a land of rivers, yet the condition of the rivers will bring tears to the eyes of anyone with a minimum love for nature. International river politics certainly has a major role to play in the rivers dying and drying up. But the blame for pollution must certainly be taken by the government and the citizens of this country.
In Sylhet, the river beds and canals are silted up due to frequent floods. And the pollution of Buriganga is so extreme that the media has perhaps written about it more than about all the other rivers of the country combined. And islands of garbage have emerged in the Karnaphuli. Polythene and plastic waste have the biggest contribution to polluting the rivers, canals and other water bodies. Even in Cox’s Bazar and St Martin’s, the waves wash piles of garbage into the beaches. In our efforts to be cautious about our health during the corona outbreak, we seem to have pushed the environment to the brink of disaster. Our overuse of one-time-use plastic and polythene has created a worse crisis.
There is still no effective waste management system in the districts, upazilas, city corporations and pourashavas (municipalities). Dhaka city alone has a population of around 20 million. That is around 5 million families, taking four members per family. And polythene is being used to dispose of the garbage from each household every day. So in an entire month, how much polythene is disposed from 5 million families? The garbage collection from the households has become polythene dependent.
Instead of building up a sustainable waste disposal system, the city and municipal authorities are indirectly promoting the use of polythene in waste disposal. Also, every family returns home from shopping with several polythene bags. Yet just a couple of decades ago we didn’t have this polythene culture. Due to lack of planning and commitment, we are steadily becoming more and more dependent on polythene and plastic in our lives.
According to the World Bank, Bangladesh ranks among the top 10 in the world in the use of plastic and polythene. In Dhaka, these are being thrown to the ground after using once. These go through drains, canals and rivers, ultimately ending up in the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh ranks sixth globally for polluting the seas with polythene and plastics through the rivers. In a recent study conducted by three universities including Hamburg University of Germany, it was said that Bangladesh is sitting on a plastic and polythene bomb. There may be a large scale crisis unless the use of these is brought under control.
It is a matter of concern that in the proposed budget this time, the government has withdrawn duty on all types of polythene and plastic bags and wrappers. In the last financial year, a 5 per cent supplementary duty had been placed on these items, but that has been removed this time. The environmental organisations feel that the government, through this move, is promoting the use polythene and plastic. Concerned persons say that the government has taken this decision in the interests of the businesspersons. Companies spend a large amount on plastic bags and wrappers for certain products. Why should the government take the responsibility of generating these profits?
Perhaps such contradictory manipulation of the law is only possible in this country. Why was a law enacted, if it was not to be followed or cannot be followed or will not be put into effect?
In 2002 a law was enacted, banning the production, marketing, use, sales, sales display, storage, distribution and transportation for commercial purposes, of polythene products. Violation of this law would lead to a one to ten-year prison sentence or Tk 50,000 to Tk 100,000 fine or both. The government is doing nothing to implement this law or mobilise public awareness in this regard. On the contrary, it is creating opportunity for illegal business of millions of taka in manufacturing polythene and plastic products. Perhaps such contradictory manipulation of the law is only possible in this country. Why was a law enacted, if it was not to be followed or cannot be followed or will not be put into effect?
Bangladesh Nature Conservation Alliance (BNCA), an alliance of 33 environmental organisations, has expressed concern, saying the withdrawal of supplementary duty from polythene is contradictory. If this proposal is taken up, the price of environmentally harmful polythene bags will decrease and the use of this lawfully banned product, and pollution, will increase in the country.
We had seen the prospect of ‘golden bags’ as an alternative for polythene in a project of the government itself. Scientist Mobarak Ahmed Hossain Khan of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, and his team manufactured the ‘sonali bag’ or ‘golden bag’ out of jute and won praise for this innovation at home and abroad. The government too took pride in this success, but till now has taken no measures for the promotion, marketing or use of this product. If this low-cost 'sonali bag' made of jute could reach all households instead of polythene, undoubtedly our golden heritage of jute would be revived. Life would return to the jute mills. And Bangladesh could be a pioneer in leading the world away from the harmful plastic-culture that stands as a threat to world civilisation. Instead of taking that path, why are we opting to promote environmentally destructive enterprise?
* Rafsan Galib is a subeditor at Prothom Alo
* This column has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir