Three years ago, Bangladeshi scientist Mubarak Ahmed Khan hit the headlines across the national and international media for coming up with a biodegradable polymer of jute. Environmentalists as well as the green activists got excited about his invention, which they say could solve a part of the world's plastic waste problem.
There were reasons to be ecstatic. Almost all countries around the world have been struggling to cut down on growing tonnage of discarded plastic that ends up in the seas. A product that could replace throwaway plastic shopping bags with something biodegradable would have been an earth saver.
With that in mind, Mobarak picked jute—of which Bangladesh is the second largest producer in the world—and invested his years of work to turn it into biodegradable polymer. Thus was born the concept of 'Sonali Bag', which eventually materialized into a product in 2018 under a pilot project.
It received praises from all quarters. Even Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promoted it on that year's World Environment Day, urging people to keep themselves away from using throwaway plastic bags and opt for the jute-made product like Sonali bag.
But soon the euphoria surrounding the product as well as the whole project fizzled out.
Last Saturday, scientist Mubarak told The Business Standard that he has been waiting for either the government or any private entity to take the mantle forward now.
"The pilot project has been completed successfully but commercial production is yet to begin," said the 63-year-old scientist hinting that he had not received any offer for scaling up.
The government officials however said otherwise. According to them, scientist Mubarak had not even informed them about the completion of the project.
"Usually, he does not share anything about the technology. He even did not let us know what he intends to do now," said Abdur Rauf, chairman of Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation, the state-run enterprise which took up the pilot project.
Another government official who preferred to be unnamed also alleged that Mubarak hardly shares anything about the technology in fear of losing his grip.
Fund crunch slows progress
When told about such an allegation, Mubarak shot back: "Why should I share my details? It's my own intellectual property. I have invested years on this."
To him, the problem doesn't lie within technology transfer, rather it lies in fund management and scaling up.
The BJMC has been producing a mere 2,000 Sonali bags per day on a trial basis. They are selling the bags for Tk10 each. People can buy Sonali bags from the BJMC office in Motijheel.
"The problem is 2,000 bags are next to nothing when talking of commercial production. To do that, we need proper funds, which we are not getting yet," he said.
Only last year, Mubarak needed to buy some machinery to smoothly run the operation but wasn't getting the funds. Then in April, the government allocated Tk10 crore to the "Sonali Bag project" from the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund.
"That money however was for buying machineries and chemicals, not for scaling up the project,' said Mubarak.
"You have to understand that we are now ready and we are waiting for a big investment for commercial production of these bags," he said, adding that if they want to go for commercial production, they need an investment of at least Tk400 crore.
"The barrier is that the BJMC itself is in a fund crisis and facing other problems. Who will fund us for commercial production?" questioned Mubarak.
"It will need a new project proposal and it will have to be passed in the Executive Committee of National Economic Council (Ecnec). I don't know why the initiative is not being taken up," said Mubarak.
Solution to the plastic problem
Mubarak took the initiative to produce biodegradable polymer from jute fibre back in 2010. His first success came in 2015 and upon that the government decided to start the production of the cellulose bags under a pilot project.
In 2017, Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation, the state-run jute mills corporation, took up the pilot project and set up a jute-polymer unit in the Latif Bawani Jute Mill to produce the product.
The Sonali bag is recyclable. With 30 micrometre thickness, the bag is stronger than the regular polythene bags that are found in the market.
"You can carry up to 16 kilograms of goods in a Sonali Bag," said Mubarak. He also said the eco-friendly bag will take two to three months to decompose in the soil. But the time for decomposition depends on the quality of water. It can take anywhere between six hours to six months.
According to BJMC, about 410 million polybags are used in Dhaka city alone per month. As people throw plastic waste into the river, a three-meter-thick layer of plastic waste has formed on the bed of the Buriganga river.
Only 10 to 15 percent of bags are thrown into dustbins, the rest are dropped in drainage and sewerage systems and open places. Plastic bags are responsible for 80 percent of Dhaka's waterlogging.
Not just Bangladesh, the whole world is facing a challenge in addressing and curtailing plastic pollution.
According to the US-based Centre for Biological Diversity, up to 80 percent of plastic waste ends up in the oceans.
Around 100,000 aquatic animals are killed from plastic entanglement annually. One in three leatherback sea turtles have been found with plastic in their stomachs. A plastic bag takes at least 500 years to decompose in a landfill.
Polythene and plastics are cancer-causing agents, and may also cause skin disease and other health problems. Eating polythene wrapped food is also harmful because the polythene emits hydrogen cyanide, an extremely hazardous gas.