As much as 87,000 tonnes of single-use plastic products are discarded in Bangladesh every year which eventually make their way into lakes, rivers and the sea
At the mingling point of the rivers Bangshi and Buriganga, there lies a river where the water has been replaced by plastic waste.
With dumping grounds in the middle and two banks, the river locally known as Burigang is strewn with plastic packets, bottles and polythene bags.
Around 12-13 years ago, the river was a popular waterway for communication and transporting goods as it flowed through Rasulpur in Kamrangirchar.
However, the Burigang can hardly be called a river anymore as it has shrunk so much that it is now narrower than a canal.
Locals now call it a "plastic river", even though they admitted to polluting it with plastic waste. The residents and shopkeepers can be seen regularly throwing rubbish in the river, causing the river water to become stagnant.
Md Selim, who has been living in Kamrangirchar for almost 20 years, said, "The government cleans the waste every two or three months but we keep refilling it."
The cause behind the death of this river is evident: plastic waste. Unfortunately, the Burigang is just one of numerous other water bodies killed by plastic waste. Other lakes, rivers and even the sea are filling up with plastic.
According to a survey by the Environment and Social Development Organisation (Esdo), as much as 87,000 tonnes of single-use plastic products are thrown away in Bangladesh every year.
Common single-use plastic products include straws, cotton buds, food packaging, food containers, bottles, plates, spoons, bags, toothpaste tubes and shampoo packets. Most of these products are used in restaurants, hotels, airlines, super shops and by the commodities industry.
Due to the excessive use of plastic items and improper waste management, these plastic materials ultimately reach croplands, sewerage drains, rivers, lakes and sea, severely harming the environment.
The research by Esdo says 22 percent of single-use plastic in Bangladesh is used in villages and 78 percent is used in urban areas. Most of this plastic is used in the food packaging sector that produces around 54,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year.
The impact of single-use plastic
According to environmental organisations, discarded plastic products reach rivers and lakes through drains. Then from rivers, the plastic ends up in sea.
Single-use plastic does not degrade even in 100 years in water or soil.
Plastic waste damages the fertility of soil by reducing its stickiness. In water bodies, fish also lose their fertility. If plastic accumulates in a certain place, the biodiversity of that area may be hampered.
Researchers have found plastic particles in the stomach of fish in the Bay of Bengal and in salt, which is alarming for both animals and human beings.
Shahriar Hossain, secretary general of Esdo, said, "Plastic particles, which do not degrade for hundreds of years, are severely harmful to human beings and other animals. Fish consume the plastic as food and die. Fish have problems in reproduction if the water is polluted."
Furthermore, various types of colours composed of different chemicals, are used in plastic packaging.
According to a research by the United Nations Environment Programme, as many as 11,000 chemicals are used in producing colours in the world. Those chemicals contain lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium and other heavy metals that are toxic when consumed.
Researchers claim most of the packets used for food packaging in Bangladesh are of low quality. Besides, the colours used are not food-grade. Usually, 18-22 types of colours are used in plastic products made in Bangladesh.
Wishing anonymity, a senior official of Olympic Industries Limited said, "The plastic we use for packaging is food-grade. So, there is no health risk. However, research should be conducted on what ultimately happens to the packet after it is used."
But going by the claim of researchers that the colouring agents used are not food-grade, there is a possibility of our food being tainted with toxic material, especially during summer when the heat breaks down the chemicals and the chemicals get mixed with our food.
Though the mixing of heavy metals does not harm consumers in the short term, it has a long-lasting harmful effect on the kidneys. It can also cause cancer, according to a research published by the Journal of Cancer Prevention.
Foreign plastic waste reaches Bangladeshi waters
Recently, a packet produced in Brazil was found on the Inani Beach in Cox's Bazar.
Researchers think this type of packets come from one country to another through sea channels.
Much plastic waste from India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar is found at the sea in Bangladesh.
The Bay of Bengal receives almost 300 types of plastic products through the Padma River, according to a research by the National Geographic.
Almost 73,000 tonnes of plastic waste reach the Bay of Bengal through the Padma, Meghna and Jamuna rivers, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme – which is only 40 percent of the total plastic waste in the Bay.
The remaining 60 percent comes from other parts of the world.
Shahriar Hossain suggested that the government of Bangladesh discuss the issue with India and other countries and resolve it as per the International River Commission laws.
How countries are trying to eradicate single-use plastic
On January 5 this year, Thailand banned the use of plastic in packaging of foods. India has also banned plastic bags in some states and declared to implement it countrywide in 2022.
Bangladesh, as the first country in the world, put an embargo on the use of polythene bags in 2002, which was strictly monitored until 2006.
Though the use of polythene decreased significantly at the time, it is now produced and used everywhere. The application of the law has also been quite lenient.
The High Court last week put an embargo on carrying, selling, using and marketing of polythene and plastic bags in coastal areas. It also ordered prohibiting single-use plastic products in all hotels, motels and restaurants within a year.
The court asked the government to submit a report by January 5 next year regarding what measures it takes to prevent the use of plastic bags.
The High Court also issued a ruling, asking why the failure to control the use of single-use plastic should not be considered as a violation of relevant existing environment laws.
The court asked the government to ensure full implementation of the existing legal embargo on plastic or polythene use by regular monitoring, shutting down factories and seizing machinery.
Environment, Forests and Climate Change Minister Md Shahab Uddin said, "Mobile court drives have been conducted in different regions in the country following the High Court order. Awareness programmes are also going on to educate people."
At present, no measures have been taken to stop plastic usage, he added. "However, steps have been taken to stop the use of polythene."