The government's goal of switching to a ubiquitous use of alternative bricks in public sector construction projects by 2025 will need a massive drive to develop the alternative brick industry.
In August this year, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change decided to stop using conventional bricks for construction projects in the public sector in phases by 2025.
Alternative bricks account for less than one percent of the country's total brick production.
The government has decided to use 10 percent alternative bricks in all public projects during 2019-20. The figure will go up to 20 percent the following year, 30 percent in 2021-22, 60 percent in 2022-23, 80 percent in 2023-24 and 100 percent in 2025.
"The government uses 45 percent of the total bricks produced in the country," Ziaul Haque, director of air quality monitoring at the Department of Environment, told The Business Standard.
"When the government begins using alternative bricks, citizens will follow suit," he said.
According to officials, the government will enhance taxes on the production of conventional bricks as a way of discouraging their use. They said incentives will be given to entrepreneurs for the promotion of alternative bricks.
Every day, nearly 7,000 brick fields across the country produce seven crore bricks for construction of buildings and other infrastructures. The increasing demand for conventional bricks has led to a situation where the Tk20,000 crore brick industry has been wreaking havoc on the environment.
The alternative brick industry does not use topsoil or heat. Instead, dredged soil and cement are used. The regular brick industry, on the other hand, heavily depends on topsoil and fossil fuel.
The brickfields are eating up 284 crores of cubic feet of soil, much of which is topsoil. The continuous removal of topsoil from fertile lands across the country is contributing to a decrease in food production.
"If the use of topsoil is not stopped now, the country will inevitably confront a food crisis in the near future," said Bidhan Kumar Bhander, director of the Soil Resource Development Institute, a national institute that conducts research on soil and soil quality.
"The most fertile part of soil is the upper part. When topsoil is taken away for making bricks, the rest of the soil becomes completely barren," he said.
In addition to topsoil, the industry is using around 50 lakh tonnes of coal and 30 lakh tonnes of wood annually to produce fuel for burning bricks, emitting 15 million tonnes of greenhouse gas a year.
Air quality in Bangladesh is one of the poorest in the world, with Dhaka globally ranked the second most polluted city in 2019. Every year, 1.22 lakh people die from air pollution-related diseases in the country. Experts believe that brick kilns are responsible for 58 percent of air pollution in Dhaka.
Ziaul Haque said the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change recently formed a technical committee for implementation of the decision to switch to alternative bricks. The committee has submitted its report along with some recommendations.
"I believe within two months, we will be able to implement the decision. There will be conditions in the tender process and contractors will have to use 10 percent alternative bricks in public projects," he said.
Although the government has decided to use 10 percent alternative bricks, it is skeptical about supply as demand for alternative bricks has not grown much. Not many entrepreneurs in the country are producing alternative bricks, and companies are only producing according to as many purchase orders as they get.
"Last year, some 30 companies were involved in making different types of alternative bricks. This year, the number has increased to around 40," said Akhter Hossain Sarker, principal research officer of the Housing and Building Research Institute.
He said alternative brick manufacturers are producing around 15 lakh bricks every month. This is less than one percent of traditionally-produced bricks.
Aksid Corporation Limited, which went into business in February this year, supplies CLC blocks (a type of alternative brick) for Tk 75 each. Mehjabeen Sejuti, sales executive of the company, told The Business Standard the demand for alternative bricks is growing day by day.
"It fluctuates but we can definitely say the demand is increasing. We found it hard in the beginning to sell these blocks but now we are selling 10,000 to 20,000 every month," she said.
"You may find it costlier as a piece of good quality brick will cost Tk10 whereas a piece of CLC block – which is equal to six bricks in size – will cost Tk75. That is Tk15 more than the price of six bricks," she explained.
"If you consider the price of a single block, it will be misleading. If you use CLC blocks, the total construction cost of a building will decrease by 25 percent," added Sejuti.
Mir Concrete Products Limited in Dhaka supplied 60 lakh hollow blocks for the Rohingya relocation project in Bhashan Char. The company's Senior Deputy General Manager Mohammad Salim told The Business Standard that the demand for alternative bricks is growing day by day.
Ziaul hopes more and more entrepreneurs will start producing alternative bricks when they see that the demand for this type of brick is growing.
To promote the use of alternative bricks, the Housing and Building Research Institute launched a project called "Promoting Sustainable Building in Bangladesh" in 2016. Under the project, the institute has so far trained 5,000 people, including students, masons and engineers, to raise awareness of the advantage of this type of brick among people.
"We are still trying to make the public aware of the benefits of building houses with cost-effective and environment-friendly alternative bricks," said Akhter.
He told The Business Standard that a CLC block saves mortar, which is used to fill the gaps between bricks. Besides, it takes half an inch of plaster whereas a brick-built building will take one inch.
Using alternative bricks saves time and requires fewer masons. As these blocks do not have as much weight as traditional bricks, the foundation of the building does not have to be very deep.
Real estate companies still do not use alternative bricks for constructing buildings. The first vice president of Real Estate and Housing Association of Bangladesh, Liakat Ali Bhuiyan, said the use of alternative bricks has not yet been widely publicized and that is where the real problem lies.
"We do not have any idea about the supply capacity of these bricks. We cannot just sit idle when a building is half-done but there is not enough supply of blocks," he said.
Government officials have said they will soon hold meetings with members of the Real Estate and Housing Association of Bangladesh to encourage them to use alternative bricks in construction.
Adil Mohammed Khan, general secretary of Bangladesh Institute of Planners, said the use of alternative bricks is yet to elicit an encouraging response from the people. He said blocks are environment-friendly as well as cost-effective but most people do not know where these materials are sold.
"The government should have played a massive role in introducing alternative bricks in public projects long ago. Their initiatives in this regard were not that visible," he said.
Environmentalist Iqbal Habib said it is simply impossible to popularise alternative bricks in the private sector if the government itself does not promote its use.
"The government must provide incentives or tax rebates for alternative brick producers. At the same time, it should increase VAT and tax on traditional brick production. But the government is not doing that. As a result, neither the demand for nor the supply of alternative bricks is growing at the expected level," he told The Business Standard.
Mizanur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Brick Manufacturing Owners Association, told The Business Standard the depletion of topsoil and environmental pollution caused by brick kilns is worrisome.
"The high demand for traditional bricks is driving production. If the demand for alternative bricks increases, we will move to produce those," he added.