It takes two minutes to drink 250ml of soft drink from a plastic bottle using a plastic straw. The bottle and the straw may be thrown right away, but they will remain in nature with little changes to chemical compounds for as long as 500 years.
Bangladesh generates 821,250 tonnes of plastic waste annually. Only 293,825 tonnes of that waste are recycled and 527,425 tonnes go to the landfill and the environment, according to a study of the Department of Environment (DoE).
ResearchGate, a European commercial social networking site, says Bangladesh is responsible for 2.4% of the world's mismanaged plastic waste.
Though the sector players claim that there are 300 plastic recycling factories in the country with the capacity to recycle half of the total plastic waste produced in the country, DoE study finds that only 36% of plastic waste is recycled.
Most of the recycling factories are small and environmentally noncompliant.
Industry insiders said most of the large plastic manufacturers in the country have their own recycling plants.
However, the plants are operated on a very limited scale.
Chowdhury Kamruzzaman Kamal, director (marketing) of RFL Group, a leading plastic manufacturer in Bangladesh said the company recycles 3,000 tonnes of plastic annually.
"We use old or recycled plastic in manufacturing mainly cleaning and outdoor products," he added.
Bangladesh lost 3.4% of 2015 GDP only due to pollution and environmental degradation in urban areas, said World Bank acting country director for Bangladesh and Bhutan Dandan Chen, referring to a country-wise analysis by the World Bank.
The Covid-19 pandemic further exacerbated the challenge causing an escalation of about 20% plastic waste, including PPE and other hazardous waste. For resilient economic recovery, Bangladesh must ensure green growth and address environmental degradation, stated Dandan Chen.
Threat of single-use plastics
Among the entire plastic waste, single-use plastic is a matter of great concern, because most of such plastic materials are non-recyclable. Bangladesh generates around 86,707 tonnes of single-use plastic waste annually, 96% of which comes from food and personal care packaging, according to a study by Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO).
MdZiaulHaque, director of the DoE, said, "Solid waste management rules are at the final stage for getting approval and we are also trying to introduce recycling with the assistance of the Word Bank."
Unilever Bangladesh and UNDP are also going to start a pilot project shortly on the basis of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) principle, he said. EPR is a policy approach under which producers are given a responsibility – financial or physical or both – for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products.
"Thus, we have a plan to begin a sustainable plastic waste management system within the shortest possible time," said the DoE official.
Harming biodiversity and human lives
According to ESDO, municipal solid waste containing about 12% of plastic is burnt, releasing toxic gases like dioxin, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide and methane are released into the air when plastic waste decomposes, contributing to global warming. About 30% of plastic waste is directly discharged into the water, which finally flows into the ocean through canals and rivers.
Scientists estimate that by 2050, 99% of seabirds will have ingested plastics. And the number of plastics will surpass the number of fish in the ocean. A recent study found that roughly 100,000 particles of plastic enter our bodies each year by consumption and inhalation.
The chemicals from plastics that enter into the food chain and gets into the human body may cause severe health complications, but the common problems include obesity, asthma, stomach upset, lung congestion, vision problem and skin diseases, said ESDO.
Suggesting a reformation of the country's waste management infrastructure, Jasim Uddin, vice-president of Bengal Group, said, "Consumption [of plastics] is over 100kg per capita in Japan and Singapore but they are 100% plastic waste free countries. We should learn from them."
In the meantime, to inspire entrepreneurs the government has decided to give a tax holiday to the plastic recycling industry.