October 6, 2019. St Martin's Island. As the morning Sun lurked from behind the distant Myanmar mountains in the East, a group of 39 young men and women loaded a trawler with several dozen sacks. All filled with plastic trash. The group collected these from the shorelines of the island over the previous two days. Their destination - mainland Bangladesh. Objective- to dispose of the garbage properly.
As the trawler reached Teknaf by midday, the group took the garbage to a local businessman who bought reusable plastic and other stuff for Tk10 per kilogram. The total trash weighed 550 kg.
This clean-up event was organised by Travellers of Bangladesh (ToB)- the most popular travellers' group in Bangladesh. Although the volunteers brought back a whopping 550 kg trash, St. Martins Island became nothing close to clean.
"We could only collect five percent of non-degradable garbage of the island," Niaz Morshed, one of the organisers told The Business Standard.
Of course, cleaning 100 percent of the garbage was not the target of the event, nor was it possible for the group, given the large amount of trash that is littered by thousands of tourists that visit the island every day during the winter.
"Creating awareness about plastic pollution was the main objective," Niaz informed.
ToB organised a similar event in the previous year, 2018, when 33 people collected 110 kg of plastic trash and brought back to Teknaf.
Clean campus programme
Around the same time, the Dhaka University campus was struggling with its litter problems too. The 254-acre university campus is thronged by about 50 thousand students, teachers and staff every day. Thousands more former students and city dwellers come here to socialise. The total amount of one-time cups, soft drink bottles, straws and tissues they use is huge.
Making all of them use the bins was always a 'mission impossible'. Since time immemorial, the shopkeepers and other cleaning staff have been cleaning the surroundings once or twice every day. Still, it was not enough.
Fed up with this, a group of students decided to bring changes.
They talked to the Vice Chancellor, and shared with him their plan. The VC not only applauded their intention, but also instructed the Estate office and the Proctor's office to fully cooperate with the initiative.
Mahmudul Hasan, a member of Dhaka University Central Students' Union (DUCSU) led the process. A programme named Clean Campus was officially launched on January 1, 2020. Mahmudul was the programme's convener.
They recruited 100 volunteers for three months. The campus was divided into six zones. Clad in green aprons, volunteers started patrolling the campus in two shifts - from 11 to 1 pm, and 4 to 6 pm. They collected the litter and disposed of them properly, and tried to encourage everyone to use the dustbins in the process.
The result was encouraging, but not totally satisfactory. A small portion of people lacking civic sense produced huge litter.
The students' body instructed the tea stalls to stop using single-use plastic products. They complied. Soft drinks in glass bottles made a return, plastic cups were replaced by glass cups in the first weeks. Now, there are fewer litter.
Mobile street food vendors at first ignored the instructions and continued using single-use plastic products such as spoons, cups and polythene packets. Volunteers reported the matter to the proctor office, which banned these violators from the campus.
"Although students could have solved the issue themselves, we didn't take the law into our own hands," Mahmudul said. Later, those vendors apologised and promised not to use such products. Then they were allowed in the campus again.
The campaign continued for about three months until the nationwide shutdown began. Had everything been normal, the first batch of volunteers would have handed over their duty to a new batch in April. There is a plan to award the volunteers certificates for their services.
Changes indeed came step by step over a three-month period. But some old habits like using plastic straws, not throwing tissues in the bins, remained. From the middle of March, fast food and tea stalls stopped providing those things too. No single-use product available, no littering. Problem solved.
Shopkeeper Ramjan at Milon Chattar near the central library seemed very happy with the development. "The surrounding looks beautiful now, and the workload of cleaning has come down to almost zero," he told The Business Standard before the shutdown began.
Students also wanted to give the ban an official status. In DUCSU's last executive committee meeting held in February 8, Mahmudul Hasan presented a proposal for plastic-free campus. It was passed with all 25 yes votes. "No one even raised a question about it," said Mahmudul with content.
"We wanted to do something sustainable. There are some who had taken some initiatives before, took photos, but stopped without having a lasting impact," said he.
On February 14, Dhaka University campus was declared polythene and plastic waste-free in the presence of the environment minister Md Shahab Uddin after a clean-up event held at the Curzon Hall.
Inspired by ToB's clean-up event, a couple of other tourist groups undertook similar actions in St. Martin's Island this year.
But by the end of March, there was a striking difference between the island and DU campus. The former filled with trash again, but the later became cleaner every day.
The difference was evidently set by the ban of single-use plastic while cleaning went on.
ToB's clean-up group were aware that without such a ban, getting rid of plastic waste by merely transporting them to mainland was not feasible. A writ petition in this regard was filed in the High Court on behalf of Muhammad Abdullah, an admin of the group.
On December 17, 2019, a HC bench issued a rule asking the government to explain why it should not be directed to take effective measures to save the environment of St Martin's Island.
Earlier on December 6, the High Court directed the concerned authorities to ban single-use plastic products in coastal areas and all hotels and motels across the country within one year.
After hearing a writ petition jointly filed by 11 organisations, including the Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (BELA), the court also issued an order to enforce the legal ban on polythene through strict monitoring.
In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to have outlawed thin polythene bags. Due to poor enforcement, such bags are still in production, and widespread use.
Both groups worked with an aim to create awareness about pollution and tried to ban the polluting products. However, there was no local involvement in the island.
A local UP member and his associates applauded the cleaning event, but did not participate. No attempts to involve the locals have been reported, too. On the other hand, in DU, students, equivalent of "locals", empowered by students' union, did the main part.
Both groups put emphasis on public awareness on use and disposal of one-time products because change from below is always sustainable. But a comparison of the two cases suggests that a top down approach, where concerned authority enforces a ban, is indeed crucial in pollution control.
Also notable is the elected representatives' role in the two campaigns.
Ban of single-use plastic does not only eliminate littering, but also reduces plastic pollution by reducing use. Because, even in the perceivably most civilised part of the planet, plastic pollution is a huge problem.
According to the UN, we produce 300 million tonnes of plastic waste globally every year, which is nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. More than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s, about 60 percent of which has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment.
According to Waste Concern, a Bangladeshi social business enterprise specialised in waste management, Bangladesh produces more than 0.8 million tonnes of plastic waste per year. Around 36 percent of the waste is recycled, 39 percent is landfilled and rest 25 percent remains unattended and a substantial amount of it finds its way into the marine environment.
It is evident that a part our younger generation is significantly environmentally conscious. While an increasing number of domestic tourists throng the popular tourist spots and leave them littered, many groups conduct regular drives to clean the locations.
However, the old and sluggish administrative mechanisms cannot keep up with the expectations of the newer generations.
Our hope, therefore, lies in the young taking full control. Until they do, our duty is to hold the fort a little longer.