While plastic can be considered a miracle material, single-use plastic is as deadly as it gets due to its multiple negative impacts on the environment, health and economy. Single-use plastics, also termed as disposable plastics, are meant to be tossed or recycled after one-time use. These items include polythene bags, sachets, straws, food wrappers, plastic bottles etc. which are used extensively on a regular basis.

Bangladesh produces around 87,000 tons of single-use plastics waste annually and 86% of the waste is dumped in landfills.[1] As most plastics are non-biodegradable, discarded plastic products break down into smaller particles called microplastics. These microplastics can stay in soil and water for a long time causing severe environmental pollution and eventually  getting exposed to the food chain. In Bangladesh, single-use plastics are broadly used in restaurants, hotels, airlines, super-shops, groceries, etc. due to the extremely cheap price, lack of affordable alternatives and weak policy enforcement.

Single-Use Plastic in Bangladesh

Broadly, the single-use plastics are found in three forms: Food wrappers, sachets and straws. Around 96% of the total single-use plastic waste comes solely from food and personal care packaging.[1]

FIGURE: Annual generation of single use plastic in Bangladesh (ton) / Source: Environment and Social Development Organization

Food wrappers are mostly made of non-recyclable forms of plastics. Sachet, made of completely non-recyclable plastics, is a growing source of single-use plastic in both rural and urban areas and is mostly used for packaging food items and personal care products such as– mini packs of shampoo, conditioner, ketchup, toothpaste etc. 

FIGURE: Single use plastic waste generation in urban and rural area / Source: Environment and Social Development Organization

While 78% of the single-use plastic waste are generated in urban areas of Bangladesh, a significant portion of 22% comes from rural areas.[1] The fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies significantly contributes to single-use plastic pollution as they deploy plastic packaging across most of their products in the form of food wrappers and sachets. Among the service sectors, the primary sources of plastic waste generation are restaurants, airlines, hotels and super-shops. 

FIGURE: Single use plastic waste generation scenario in Bangladesh / Source: Environment and Social Development Organization

Many countries have adopted the alternatives to single-use plastics by using biodegradable packaging materials such as– leaf, paper, bamboo sticks or leaf stems etc. Jute, the golden fiber of Bangladesh has tremendous potential to be an alternative to plastic bags. Lack of mass awareness and limited production are obstructing the process of plastic alternatives adoption.

Problems with Single-Use Plastic

Single-use plastic has three-dimensional impacts: Environmental, health and economic.

Environmental Impacts: Plastics have serious impacts on biodiversity loss and food chain contamination. Poor waste management of plastic can arouse natural disasters. Poor drainage system resulting from plastic litter blocking the drains caused devastating floods in Bangladesh in 1988.[2] Two-thirds of the country was submerged and several deaths took place.

Health Impacts: Dumped plastics are often burnt that release toxic gases contaminating the air. Poor plastic waste management systems result in a blockage in sewage systems that can raise the risk of vector-borne diseases through mosquitoes.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the existence of microplastic is found in water bottles and table salt which can cause respiratory diseases, heart and digestion issues etc.[3] People might be consuming plastics without any knowledge which will affect their health in the long run. If things remain unturned, these health issues are going to take a toll on the healthcare industry in Bangladesh in near future. 

Economic Impacts: Plastic pollution can have hazardous effects in agriculture, fisheries and the tourism sector of a country. Microplastics and toxins from emissions deposited in the soil can cause soil pollution resulting in land infertility. Throwing single-use plastics in rivers, lakes and ocean can severely harm aquatic animals posing a threat to the fisheries sector.

FIGURE: Waste scenario in tourism spots in Chittagong / Source: Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change

With rising disposable income of people, the inbound tourism sector has been eyeing growth. A study by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has confirmed plastic to be the major source of waste in the tourism spots in Chittagong.[5] The marine tourism spots can lose their attractiveness due to over pollution and mismanagement of plastics, harming the tourism sector in Bangladesh.

Government Policies Regarding Single-Use Plastics

In 2002, the Government of Bangladesh imposed a ban on all polyethylene plastic bags being the first South Asian country to ban plastics.[2] The ban was introduced after finding plastic bags to be responsible for aggravating the deadly flood of 1988 and blocking sewage systems in 1998. Despite initial positive support from the public, the use of plastic bags increased after a few years due to a lack of policy enforcement and the absence of cost-effective substitutes.

The High Court has recently ordered the Government to ban single-use plastics in coastal areas, hotels and restaurants within one year to reduce plastic pollution. The Government also ordered to strictly enforce the ban on polyethylene under the existing law of 2002.[4]

In 2010, the Government of Bangladesh introduced the ‘Mandatory Jute Packaging Act’ to decrease the use of plastics. Since the jute bags are relatively costlier than the plastic bags, traders are found hardly interested in practicing the law.[4] In 2017.

‘Sonali’ bag, a biodegradable jute poly bag was invented by Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation. Few local companies such as Ecospear Ltd, Expo Accessories Ltd etc have started manufacturing their own eco-friendly packaging materials. The high cost of production leads to higher sale prices of these products.

ProductApproximate Price (BDT per piece)
Plastic bag1.5-2.5
Organic bag (Corn and maze)4-5
Organic bag (Cassava)5
‘Sonali’ bag (Jute)10 
TABLE: Price comparison between plastic bags and biodegradable bags

The Future: Minimizing Single-Use Plastic Waste  

If the growing amount of plastic waste is taken lightly, Bangladesh is going to face the dire consequences that come with it. To tackle the plastic menace across the country, strict enforcement of the laws, strong waste management system and cost-effective alternative of single-use plastic need to be ensured.

Strict Law Enforcement: The concerned authorities should follow the High Court directives and plan a framework of regular market monitoring and closing of polythene manufacturing factories. In addition, the FMCG companies should be pushed towards following the plastic ban and using eco-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging. 

Strong Waste Management System: Countries such as Colombia, Indonesia etc. have come up with innovative waste management models to tackle their plastic problems. Bangladesh too, should build effective waste collection models to stop indiscriminate dumping of plastics and reduce environmental impacts.

Cost-effective Alternatives: The Government should facilitate the mass commercialization of biodegradable jute poly bags and other environment-friendly alternatives of single-use plastic. This would decrease the cost of production and would also help the jute industry regain its lost glory.

Considering the environmental, health and economic impacts, immense support from the Government should be put in place to execute the policies to phase out the use of single-use plastic for a sustainable Bangladesh.

Ishrat Jahan Holy, Trainee Consultant at LightCastle Partners, has prepared the write-up. For further clarifications, contact here: [email protected]


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