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The plastic pandemic: Single-use plastics pile up as Covid-19 delays ban

  • Published at 05:40 pm April 21st, 2021
Use of single-use plastic item increased significantly, especially over the past one year, which saw a rise on online deliveries of food and other products amid Covid-19 restrictions Dhaka Tribune

People in Bangladesh throw away around 87,000 tons of single-use plastic items every year

As the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many Dhaka restaurants to suspend their dine-in options, Nabila Khandakar now has to rely on ordering foods via delivery apps.

With every single order, she receives a bunch of takeaway food containers and utensils – all of them are single-use plastic (SUP) items, which consumers like Nadia do not use in everyday life.

In Dhaka and other major cities, the demand for online orders rose sharply during the pandemic, especially the lockdown periods, causing a major blow to the government’s fight against plastic pollution.

These SUPs do not decompose naturally and pose a long-lasted threat to the ecology.

Following a caution on Covid-19 transmission from contaminated objects, many customers opted for SUPs which pushed restaurants and street vendors, such as tea stalls, to keep their businesses operational.

For tea stalls, consumers prefer to take tea or coffee in one-time plastic cups, instead of regular glass-made cups or mugs that last for years. Therefore, a large number of SUPs, which include plastic bottles, are being thrown away every day, creating a havoc for the environment as they are not segregated from other wastes.

According to reports, restaurants in and around the capital city make up 2.5% of the total annual SUP waste. There are an estimated 7,000 restaurants in Dhaka.

Apart from food deliveries, there are retail and healthcare products most of which are delivered using plastic wraps, and also include personal protection equipment such as face shields and gloves.

People in Bangladesh throw away some 87,000 tons of SUPs every year, 96% of which comes from food and personal care products packaging.

About 33% of these wastes are sachets, which are completely non-recyclable, according to the Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO).

Ban order in limbo

On January 6 last year, the High Court ordered the government to ban SUPs in coastal areas, hotels, motels and restaurants across the country within a year. However, the progress of the order is not visible.

Talking to the Dhaka Tribune, officials from the Department of Environment (DoE) said that it would be almost possible to stop the use of SUPs in the coastal area within a year as the Covid-19 situation has delayed the progress of the ban.

Airlines, residential hotels, restaurants and super shops have also emerged as significant producers of SUP waste. Some 638 tons of SUP wastes produced mostly come from hotel rooms.

DoE Director General Md Moniruzzaman told the Dhaka Tribune: “We haven't had much progress with the SUP ban in the last one year. We had our last meeting last week. After receiving the High Court order, we sent a letter to the airliners, the tourism department and the hotel owners to stop the use of SUPs. But, this is more of a physical task, which is being hindered by the Covid-19 situation.”

He added that the DoE had sent letters to the municipalities to stop the use of polythene bags – banned by the government in 2002.

“In Sherpur district, we have completely stopped polythene use. We are continuing our drives in polythene factories amid the pandemic situation,” the DoE chief said.

SUPs to be banned within 2030

Huge amount of SUP waste is dumped directly into the Matuail or Aminbazar landfills without any segregation. While many countries earn money from recycling the plastic waste, Bangladesh does not have any such plans.

A biogas plant, a waste-sorting plant and an incineration plant will be operational in Matuail by 2022, and preparations in this regard are expected to start this month, according to officials concerned at the two city corporations.

The DoE chief said that the owners of plastics product manufacturing factories had asked for time till 2030 to cease their productions. “On the other hand, we hope to ban SUPs in the coastal areas within next year.

“We already have biodegradable bags made from jute which can be an alternative to plastic bags. The price of jute, paper and bamboo product will also come down if the demand rises.”

ESDO Executive Director Siddika Sultana said: “Toxic gases released from the extraction fields and also from the recycling industries pollute air, and the presence of micro plastics makes it further contaminated. This can cause respiratory distress and cancer.”

Syeda Rizwana Hasan, executive director of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers' Association, said that these plastic would not mix with soil for the next 500 years. A study also pointed out that several levels of plastic waste have accumulated in the River Buriganga.

“Recycle and reuse is not the best way to save the environment from plastic pollution. It’s time to fully step back from plastic products. Most single-use plastics used in Bangladesh are not even disposed of properly, and so they end up in landfills, lakes, rivers and the ocean. Then, this plastic breaks down into micro plastics, and contaminates the soil and the water. This contamination enters the food chain of humans, and destroys soil fertility and marine life,” she explained.

Alternatives and recommendations

Experts say that the country was successful in declaring the ban on polythene bags in 2002, though not fully enforced. The ban on SUP products will not be a difficult task as the country has ample opportunities for alternatives.

They believe imposing a specific law in this regard will help stop the use of SUPs in the country.

Siddika Sultana said: “The use of all plastic products in regular use can be stopped by 2030. A regulation on banning manufacture, use and import of all forms of single-use plastics needs to be passed on an urgent basis.”

She also said that the use of plastic food packaging, sachets and straws should be phased out by 2021, adding that commercial manufacturing of biodegradable and cost-effective alternatives should also be encouraged.

“The government needs to provide training and education in this regard,” she added.

Rizwana Hasan suggested: “We can use our domestic resources, and promote the use of organic and environment-friendly alternatives to single-use plastic products such as – paper packaging, and leaf- and bamboo-made products. To make it happen, creating mass awareness is the most important thing.”

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