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Dhaka sitting on an invisible bomb

  • Published at 02:17 pm November 4th, 2020
CT_November 2020 Pg 6
Mosaic of single-use plastic making thick layers on Dhaka’s surface. The pictures are taken at an urban slum in the city. Photo: Md Nadiruzzaman

Climate change accelerating risk of groundwater contamination

Plastic, an offer of modernity, has become one of the largest and significantly important parts of our everyday life. Due to its ability to withstand the effects of the environment, adjustable characteristics, and also being untouched by time itself, plastic has become fuel for all development. 

Imagine spending a day without any use of plastics in our everyday lives, it seems almost impossible. According to the Environment and Social Development Organization, Bangladesh produces around 87,000 tons of single-use plastic waste annually and 86% of these waste is dumped in landfills. 

Bangladesh has now encountered difficulties in coping with the vast amount of plastic waste similar to other nations. Encountering polluted landscapes, ocean pollution, clogged drains, bags fluttering in the wind, masses of plastic piled in dumps, and road corners is very common in the country. But the impact could be accelerated by climate change, at a scale that is yet to be understood.

Plastic pollution is not only limited to the surface environment, freshwater, and marine ecosystems, even groundwater could be contaminated by the toxic elements released from plastics as that percolates down the surface into groundwater, which we often use as our ‘safe’ drinking water source. The plastic – water nexus is essential to understand the linkages between plastic contamination in groundwater, health risks, and future uncertainties. 

Dependency on groundwater began with the introduction of shallow tube wells in the 1970s. Use of groundwater protected small children from water borne diseases, dramatically dropped child mortality, moreover it increased the resilience of the Bangladeshi people from such diseases. 

Despite other solutions such as boiling and filtering being available, shallow tube wells were patronized by international donors like UNICEF and popularised through local politicians, who capitalized on this opportunity as a means of winning votes by distributing them to their potential vote banks. 

And now, millions of people depend on groundwater resources for drinking, domestic, agricultural, and industrial use. This is how the entire governance infrastructure of groundwater and state-sponsored ‘safe drinking water’ campaigns could contrarily produce a ‘risk society’ in the global South due to the dependency and use of plastics. This shows human choices, values, interests, and relationships have a greater influence over the production of a ‘risk society’ (Beck, 1992).

Such high dependence on the plastic - water nexus, imposes a great risk to human health. Over time, plastics break down to microplastics namely Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC),  Polystyrene (PS), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), and a range of reinforcing fillers, plasticizers, antioxidants, UV stabilizers, lubricants, dyes, and other polymers. 

These carry toxic chemicals in the ecosystems serving as vectors of transport, and they are themselves, on the other hand, a cocktail of hazardous chemicals that are added voluntarily during their production as additives to increase polymer properties and prolong their life.

They have adverse effects on human health- with localized effects such as increased cytotoxicity at the cell level, visual impairment, cardiovascular deficits, endocrine deficits, risk of premature birth, allergies, rhinitis, asthmatic reactions, direct toxicity, and even cancer. 

These are only direct impacts on human health from groundwater consumption. There are various other ways of increasing toxicity in humans through food chains and even air. These are the future inevitable risks we will have to face through and these surely will aggravate over time.  

The trouble is worsened by climate change (ie excessive heat, heavy pouring). One of the main processes of the plastic breakdown in photodegradation. Factors such as temperature and light (UV radiation) heavily impact the molecular structure of long-chain polymeric molecules. 

This global issue alters temperature levels and causes erratic changes in weather patterns, additionally increasing the toxication rate of plastics through waterlogging and groundwater infiltration. 

We face a global climate emergency, and now added to the list of battles is the increasing decay of plastics and accumulation in our bodies and the environment. The relationship between the two is highly under-researched and requires a complete plan of action, especially for Dhaka city, where millions of lives are at stake.

Though the gravity of the problem is still unclear, plastics along with, several other toxic organic compounds and heavy metals such as arsenic, iron, chromium, nickel, lead, mercury, cadmium are leaching into the city’s only freshwater supply every second, creating suitable solvents for polymer breakdown. 

What these chemicals do to the existing toxicity of plastics and the human body remains unexplored. For what we can assume, these only make matters worse. Plastics itself, layered with climate change and further layered with such toxic compounds is a burden yet to cause chaos.

The way ahead is rough. But there is still hope amidst the doom. No single solution will stop plastic pollution and its consequences. The key to defusing the bomb will have to begin within us. We have brought this upon us and we, collectively can make efforts to stop it. No matter how small the action is, the ripple effects of the action can be rewarding. 

Beginning with self-awareness following the three R’s- reduce, reuse, and recycle, to steps taken at a national level, everything matters. Facilities and infrastructure must be developed for recycling with proper training given to the formal and informal groups associated with plastic waste management. Alongside recycling and incineration, there are numerous ways of preventing these plastics from reaching the landfills.

Countries such as Sweden, Germany, the UK, and Singapore are efficiently managing their plastic waste through strategies that can be replicated in Bangladesh. There is a large scope of using monomers of plastics in the construction sector. 

In Singapore, a single-use plastic reaches to the incinerator within 24 hours of being dropped off to a waste bin, which produces energy for the country and the ashes are used to expand lands into the sea. 

In Bangladesh particularly, the addition of small amounts of properly selected polymers to conventional cement-based structural material could protect the infrastructure in flood-affected areas, which in turn would save huge revenue every year. 

We see lots of innovative small projects in Bangladesh, such as extracting liquid fuel from plastics, which needs right patronisation to flourish. On the other hand, since some areas may already be contaminated by microplastics, innovative technologies such as membranes, electrodeposition, and coagulation can be used to remove them. 

Other innovative tertiary treatments, such as rapid gravity sand filters and dissolved air flotation provide removal rates of microplastics are also at use. There are also other innovative technologies targeting the removal of different polymers. 

Proper development of the policy concerning chemical exposure caused by plastic must be set in place while encouraging research about developing nations like ours. Development of smarter and more recyclable plastics materials and making recycling and wastewater treatment processes more efficient must be investigated thoroughly. 

The mass population of Dhaka city needs to be made aware of the severity of the dual impact of climate change and plastic contamination. With proper knowledge and collective acknowledgment, it is possible to tackle any challenge, even the ones we cannot see. 

Dr Md Nadiruzzaman is currently working as a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Geography, Hamburg University. He also affiliates with the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) (Bangladesh), Humanitarian Advisory Group (Australia), and Flowminders (Sweden). His research interests are on migration, climate change adaptation, and livelihood resilience. He can be reached at [email protected]

Afsana Afrin Esha is an intern at  International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). She obtained an MSc in Climate Change and Development from Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).

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