Mismanagement of plastic waste is killing our environment

September 13, 2022

DHAKA – A report published by this daily earlier this month suggests that Chattogram, the second largest city in Bangladesh, produces 249 tonnes of plastic waste every day, which could reach 428 tonnes per day by 2052. The results have been revealed in a study by the Civil Engineering Department of Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology (Cuet). Waste includes, but is not limited to, pouches, single-use utensils and personal care items. Unfortunately, 56% of waste is not collected.

While these facts paint a bleak picture of the mismanagement of plastic waste in Chattogram, perhaps the overall picture in the country paints a more alarming picture. According to the World Bank, in December 2021, Bangladesh was one of the top countries in the world in terms of plastic pollution due to improper management of plastic waste. The annual plastic consumption per capita in Dhaka is 22.25 kg. This number is more than three times the national average for urban areas. A report by business consultancy LightCastle Partners on the plastics industry suggests that Bangladesh ranks 10th in plastic waste mismanagement, and in Dhaka, between 2005 and 2020, daily plastic waste has experienced a increase of 178 tons to 646 tons.

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The accumulation of plastic waste is a worrying development as it can have serious environmental consequences. Plastic is mainly made from “natural materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil through a process of polymerization or polycondensation”, according to Plastics Europe, a leading pan-European trade association. . And when exposed to the sun and its heat, these can emit significant volumes of greenhouse gases. This certainly contributes to the temperature increase, which in turn can facilitate the generation of plastic waste by more harmful gases, including ethylene and methane, which can further increase the temperature, creating a nightmarish cycle of destruction.

Since plastic is not naturally biodegradable, the only way forward for plastic management is to adopt a circular business model for managing plastic waste. Of the 646 tons of plastic waste collected daily in Dhaka, only 37.2% is recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, bodies of water, playgrounds, roads and sea beaches, among other places. And this discarded waste has an impact on the environment, affecting not only the country but, in a holistic sense, the overall health of the entire planet and all its inhabitants.

Aware of the urgency of tackling plastic pollution in a structured way, the government has developed a National Action Plan for the sustainable management of plastic based on the 3R approach of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. This is based on the circular economic model and has set specific objectives to reduce plastic waste. Some of the goals include recycling 50% of plastics by 2025, phasing out single-use plastic by 90% by 2026 and by 2030, reducing plastic waste generation by 30% on the basis for the 2020-21 benchmark.

Apart from this, the government in the past has taken commendable steps to limit the use of plastic. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban thin plastic shopping bags. In 2020, a High Court directive banned single-use plastic in coastal areas and in hotels and motels across the country. Additionally, the Jute Packaging Act 2010 proactively promotes alternative packaging for six essential items, including rice, fertilizer and paddy. These are bold and laudable steps, but unfortunately they are not usually put into practice. And keep in mind that government alone cannot manage plastic waste. As a significant contributor to this threat, the private sector must come forward to claim ownership of the consequences of its actions and take effective and immediate action to support the nation in this fight.

Private sector companies, which daily contribute to the growing problem of plastic waste generation in the form of products, packaging and bottling, need to rethink how they can fully embrace the 3R approach. Currently, there are about 5,000 companies in the country, many of them small, which contribute to the production and even export of plastic products. Some of the biggest companies, including some large multinationals in the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) industry, are doing everything they can to not only recycle and reuse plastic internally, but also to help various municipal corporations collect – for through formal and informal channels. – plastic waste, so that it can be properly and safely recycled for reuse or reuse. Many of these companies have set internal targets to fully convert to using recycled plastic in their operations to minimize their plastic footprint. And others have taken special measures such as coastal clean-up campaigns.

But there are companies, especially those with small operations – many of them making cheap plastic products and packaging in shabby workshops in old Dhaka (often causing fatal fires) – who don’t understand the result of their actions and pursue their business without hesitation. Such a discrepancy in the actions of actors operating in the private sector creates barriers to the constitution of an ecosystem favorable to the implementation of a circular economic model.

At this point, the government needs to invest more time to help create policies and frameworks that promote the elimination of plastic waste through inclusive and holistic measures. What gives us hope is that awareness of the need for plastic recycling has spread across the country. The thriving plastic recycling business in the north of the country – with local people taking leadership in driving this business, which consists of around 1,000 plastic recycling plants in eight districts – is really a revelation. It shows that if there is an awareness, if there is a will, people will find a way. But for these businesses to thrive further, adequate policy support and incentives are essential.

The government may consider preparing micro-plans – perhaps as part of the National Action Plan for the Sustainable Management of Plastics – which are inclusive in nature and require committed action from all actors involved in the production and the use of plastic in the private sector to play their well-defined role. roles in plastic waste disposal. And to encourage everyone to play their part, there could be a reward mechanism for compliant companies that meet their targets. This could take the form of tax exemptions or other business incentives.

Only through an inclusive model would we be able to truly embrace the 3R approach to plastic management and reduce our plastic footprint as a nation.

Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is: @tasneem_tayeb

Bryce K. Locke