The invention of the Sonali bag, a biodegradable and environment-friendly bag made from jute, had generated a buzz at home and abroad with its potential to substitute single-use plastic bags, but Bangladesh is still way behind to capitalise on it.
When there is an opportunity to gain a stake in the $3.5 trillion global shopping bag market with many countries switching to eco-friendly packaging, Bangladesh is struggling to even meet one-third of its local demand for this biodegradable bag, let alone cashing in on the export potential.
The Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) is yet to go into large-scale production of Sonali bags even though there is a very good demand for it owing to a lack of bigger investment coupled with non-availability of upgraded machinery.
With two locally-developed machines, the state-owned Latif Bawani Jute Mills in Demra now manufactures 15,000 pieces of Sonali bags per day. The demand is nearly three-time of that in the local market.
BJMC officials say no company in the world manufactures machinery required to go into a large-scale production of this eco-friendly bag. Several companies in China, Germany and the US are capable of manufacturing such machines upon demand.
A Chinese company is working on a machine that may arrive in the country in the next two-three months, they add.
British American Tobacco, SaRa Lifestyle, Rahimafrooz and other companies currently buy Sonali bags from BJMC.
Singer Bangladesh is also keen to use this eco-friendly bag for wrapping electronics products. Accordingly, the company took samples from BJMC and sent it to its mother company for approval, according to sources at BJMC.
Rahimafrooz (Bangladesh) Ltd is ready to buy a large quantity of the bag, paying in advance, but BJMC cannot meet their needs with their limited production capacity, they added.
Go Green Bangladesh, an environmental conservation group, and a few online sites buy the eco-friendly bags at Tk10 apiece from BJMC and sell at Tk15.
Eminent scientist and scientific advisor at BJMC Dr Mubarak Ahmed Khan told The Business Standard, "Rahimafrooz purchased Sonali bags from us a few times. The company now wants to take bags in a greater quantity and is also willing to pay in advance. But we cannot meet their demand owing to a lack of capacity."
Dr Mubarak successfully developed a biodegradable polymer from jute fibre in 2015.
The BJMC started manufacturing Sonali bags successfully as an alternative to polythene bags under a pilot project at the Latif Bawani Jute Mills in Demra in 2017.
Following its trial production, Sonali bag drew global attention because of being environment-friendly.
Even after the innovation and a successful trial production, the manufacture of this biodegradable bag on a large scale is still lagging behind.
Dr Mubarak said they have got approval from Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution for marketing Sonali bags.
Besides, Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR), popularly known as Science Laboratory, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), Dhaka University's Department of Chemistry and Bangladesh Jute Research Institute tested its degradability.
Economists say Sonali bag's invention has not yet been as effective as it could have been. Doubts have been raised as to whether its commercial production will be possible shortly because neither separate management nor fund has been ensured to carry the innovation forward.
On the other hand, making Sonali bags commercially viable is also a challenge as its price is higher than that of conventional polythene bags, they add.
Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, senior research fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue said, "This biodegradable bag has potential, but it is also important to consider the issue of commercial viability because it costs more than polythene"
Commercialising it under government management is the main challenge. For this, the government and the private sector can work together, he added.
Abdul Mannan, secretary to the Textiles and Jute Ministry, told TBS that the Sonali bag has an enormous potential, but we have not yet been able to capitalise on it. If we take it forward, we can make use of state-owned jute mills."
BJMC Chairman Md Abdur Rauf, however, claimed that they were in the right direction to commercialise Sonali bags.
But in reality, documents for formulating projects involving Tk150 crore or Tk300 crore to commercialise only made rounds two years ago. The BJMC has no plans or activities yet to take up any project.
Abdur Rauf said, "As the product is new, research is still going on to improve its quality. In that case, we are moving towards commercial production by solving some problems including the machinery. More time is needed for this.
"We are communicating with different countries to manufacture necessary machinery. We cannot go for a big investment before solving problems we are coming across."