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Plastic Waste Governance in Bangladesh
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Plastic, an offer of modernity, is presenting a massive threat in altered forms, to our health and environment. Plastic does not only pollute the surface environment, fresh water, and marine ecosystems, but toxic elements released from plastics also percolate down the surface and contaminate groundwater, which we often use as ‘safe’ drinking water. This probable future risk is deeply rooted in the entire governance infrastructure of plastic waste which could potentially lead to contamination of groundwater. A recent study finds 81% of tap water samples collected worldwide contained plastic pollutants, which means that annually we may be ingesting between 3000 and 4000 microparticles of plastic from tap water.

Dhaka plastic waste governance drinking water public health
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View Times: 2018
Entry Collection: Environmental Sciences
Revisions: 4 times (View History)
Update Date: 04 Mar 2022
Table of Contents

    1. Introduction

    Despite being the first country to ban the use of poly shopping bags since 2001, Bangladesh is ranked 10th on the list, where extensive use of single-use plastics, mismanagement of these in areas, accompanied by improperly managed landfills lacking waste separation procedures due to lenient laws are widespread [1]. High population densities all over the country, especially in the capital city Dhaka, exaggerate the condition. The amount of waste generated is affected by the average income of the people, and as income rises in the megacity, waste production and inappropriate disposal are increasing exponentially. As plastics degrade over time, this massive amount of plastics in landfills is imposing a threat to the environment visibly and undetectably through routes such as soil and groundwater. Such consequences are alarming in a megacity where 84% of the municipal water is supplied from groundwater resources. The impact will be felt most by the poorest of the poor. They are at a higher risk for exposure to health hazards and environmental degradation resulting in severe and long-lasting negative impacts on livelihood security, economic development, and cultural ways of life [2].
    Bangladesh continues to grow in the global plastic market, as plastics industries produce essential products such as garments accessories, construction material, packaging, and household items. Current everyday toiletries, such as toothpaste, shampoo, bath soap, body cream, and almost all items, are available in plastic wrap in different sizes from as tiny as a single-use. Street food and tea stalls have replaced porcelain plates and cups with single-use plastic items. Thus current affordability and demand for consumer products are neoliberalized by the unregulated use of polymer wraps. Drinking water, beverages, snacks, food items, and most of the daily food items come in some sort of plastic case or container. Most of these plastic items have no use right after consuming the product inside them. As an aggregate, Bangladesh generates 336,000 tons of plastic waste per year, which is only projected to rise over time.
    Despite its potential environmental cost, the plastic industry is booming in Bangladesh. In the fiscal year 2017–2018, Bangladesh exported around USD 1 billion worth of plastic products, which makes plastic the 12th highest export earning sector in the country [3]. Currently, more than 2 million people are employed in plastic industries in Bangladesh and the domestic market size is reported to be at USD 1.9 billion with 20 percent year on year growth [1]. The flourishing plastic economy synchronized with the country’s plastic consumptions too. The average annual per capita plastic consumption is about 6 kg in Bangladesh [3]. BIGD ran a detailed waste audit among more than 600 households across different socio-economic neighborhoods in Dhaka City. As BIGD calculates, per capita average waste generation is 377 gm per day out of which 366 gm is organic and the rest 11 gm is inorganic [4]. Plastic items contain 60 percent of all household inorganic wastes. With the rise of population and expansion of the plastic industry, plastic waste rises 3.5 folds from 178 tons per day in 2005 to 646 tons per day in 2020 [1].
    Most plastic waste is neither collected properly nor disposed of appropriately to avoid harmful impacts on the environment and public health. For example, while travelling from the capital city (Dhaka) to a southern district (Barisal) by ship, researchers observed that at the end of the journey all the public spaces of the ship were cleaned and the waste bins were cleared into the river. Researchers also observed a similar scenario in cases of waste management at the household level. Despite having options of availing community-based waste collection services, many households in the city clean their private space and dump their waste into adjacent drainage and swedge system or in a public space. The flattened space in Figure 1 is a natural canal filled up with household wastes. The adjacent slum area always gets flooded even with light rain showers. Neither at the household nor institutional level, there is a huge deficiency of awareness to distinguish between organic and inorganic waste. In Current interviews with both the north and the south city corporations officers of Dhaka, researchers came to know that the city corporation authorities have never taken any initiative to separate plastic from organic wastes at any level of waste collection.
    Figure 1. Mosaic of single-use plastic creating thick layers in an urban slum in Dhaka city.
    Due to a different cultural orientation around waste management inherited from less dense rural natural settings, which does not suit a tight urban space, the structural urban waste management system was absent in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. City-dwellers never had any orientation to the cultural practice of structured waste management. A combination of inefficient policy, fragile infrastructure, weak enforcement, lack of priority, and poor political leadership constrained Bangladesh’s environmentally sustainable waste management system. Neither the producer, the consumer, nor the local council feels obliged to take those plastics out of nature. Plastics keep degrading and flowing in nature for centuries. As a result, significant amounts of single-use plastics fail to travel to landfills through informal and formal waste collection systems in the major cities. Instead, they are disposed of discretely and often clog up Current drainage and sewage system. Big cities like Dhaka and Chittagong experience localized floods following any heavy pouring, and plastic is often one of the major reasons.
    Researchers certainly are unable to see with Current bare eyes how plastics are intoxicating current surroundings. However, its unmanaged and vivid presence as waste in the current surrounding environment is hard to miss. Encountering polluted landscapes around us, bags fluttering in the wind, tangled wires covered in plastic, ocean pollution, clogged drains, heaps of plastic piled in dumps, and in the corners of streets are familiar scenarios in Bangladesh and other countries. Nevertheless, these untold stories of plastic do not end within current sight. They continue to borrow life from other organisms, not excluding humans, through routes researchers consider safe, one of which is groundwater.
    Plastic waste is grossly classified under two categories—hard and soft. Plastic bottles and cases fall under hard plastics manually collected from domestic, local, and regional dumping stations by waste collectors, primarily women, and children. In Figure 2, researchers see two hanging sacks on the door of the purple van, where the waste collectors manually separate plastic, paper, and other saleable items as they collect waste door to door. They leave only the single-use plastic at the dumping point as they incur no value to them. Thus, hard plastics travel from waste collectors through local vendors, wholesales, and other hands to the recycling factories. and are eventually exported as flakes and recycled for alternative uses. Soft plastics are mainly single-use plastics, often thrown away discretely or disposed of with regular kitchen wastes. Unfortunately, there is no provision of waste segregation at any dumping points, and around 17,000 tons per year of soft plastics are going to the landfill with regular kitchen wastes. This volume escalates with the increasing population in the city. These openly dumped plastics either make a layer of plastic in the sub-surface or get washed to the rivers and seas. Therefore, non-degradable plastic waste accounts for 73% of litter in any aquatic habitat, with roughly 50% of them disposed of after a single-use. Researchers must have noticed many images and reports on how marine lives and biodiversity are devastated by eating small plastics flakes—those tiny pieces of plastic move through the food chain.
    Figure 2. Plastic traveling from domestic disposal to a local dumping station.
    As the landfill sites in Bangladesh start receiving more and more plastics every year, the future risk of groundwater pollution becomes eminent. As the population rises and industries continue to grow, Bangladesh’s dependence on groundwater increases proportionally. In 1970, the introduction of shallow tube wells increased resilience among Bangladeshi people, infants, and newborns, by protecting them against waterborne diseases. Before introducing shallow tube wells, water from wells, homestead water tanks, ponds, and rivers were the main sources for drinking water and other domestic purposes for the people, which increased their vulnerability to waterborne diseases. Some solutions to tackle this issue were boiling and filtering surface water, harvesting rainwater, use of water purification tablets, and drinking deep tube well water. International donors like UNICEF popular in villages patronized shallow wells and local politicians popularized their use, capitalizing on this opportunity, using it as a means of engaging locals and distributing them to their potential vote banks. Over time, this had an impact on societal behavior, associating having a tube well in the home yard as a symbol of family identity and stature. This shows how human interactions, decisions, values, interests, and relationships are embedded in knowledge production. Thus, despite being relatively the most expensive solution, shallow tube wells became a presiding feature in rural regions of Bangladesh. And in the urban regions, deep tube wells became the major source of piped water for everyday use. Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (D-WASA), an independent organization established in 1963 serves around 12.5 million people with 2110 million liters of water each day mainly extracted from groundwater resources. And since the 1980s, water tables have been decreasing under the influence of deep extraction for the city’s municipal supply [5][6].

    2. Plastic Governance in Bangladesh

    Global environmentalists are more concerned and united in pushing environmental protection actions against plastic. In December 2017, about 200 nations at the UN Environment Assembly held in Nairobi signed a resolution to immediately obliterate plastic pollution in oceans. Soon after, a plastic strategy calling was released by the European Commission for reduced consumption of single-use plastic and all plastic packaging in the EU market to be reusable or recyclable by 2030. In March 2019, one hundred and seventy countries echoed the EU’s covenant to “significantly reduce” throwaway plastics by 2030. Many nations, particularly the rich countries, have invested their strategies and resources in plastic waste management, i. e., recycling. Plastic waste management is being viewed as both an issue of elimination and management. But the scenario is different for Bangladesh. The country recognized the problem two decades ago and responded by banning polymer shopping bags. Ironically, Bangladesh is at present one of the largest users of plastic in the world. National plastics industries produce essential products for readymade garments, construction, packaging, and household. Only 5% of Bangladesh’s total plastic waste reaches landfills. As mentioned earlier, three-fourth of litter in aquatic habitats are non-degradable plastic, and about half of them are single-use. This situation might deteriorate with the increasing population in the city and the changing economy. Figure 1 portrays one of the recurrent examples of how plastics are outspread in a city slum area. Plastics are either thrown away negligently anywhere or reaches the city corporation dumping stations from domestic and public garbage bins but eventually end up degrading away in landfill sites. Proper political drive to integrate the 2019 Nairobi plastic pollution declaration seems to be missing. Thus, laws, legislation, and policy guidelines on sustainable plastic use and management are lacking.

    2.1. Policy Landscape in Bangladesh

    Bangladesh has come a long way since the 1990s in formulating policies to bring environmental pollution under control. Several relevant acts, regulations such as the Factory Act (1965), Environmental Pollution Control Ordinance (1977), Dhaka Municipal Ordinance (1983), Urban Management Policy Statement (1998), National Agricultural Policy (1999), Environmental Conservation Act (2002), National Environment Management Action Plan (NEMAP 1995–2005), Renewable Energy Policy (2008), the Local Government (City Corporation) Act 2009 (Amendment-2011), National 3R Strategy (2010) has been formulated to limit the consequences of technological advancement on the environment. These policies talk about the basics of citizen rights, roles and responsibilities of the city corporations, and environmental protection, and so on. Again, though the city corporation has stakes on policies around environmental protection, they are mainly looked after by the Department of Environment (DoE) and other government departments who often do not work in close coordination with the city corporation. For example, a senior officer of the DNCC informed that in 2011 the DOE distributed a huge number of color-coded bins to some pilot areas in the city, without even discussing with the city authorities. The project ended with no output. Moreover, none of these policies has prioritized plastic as a part of the environmental problem in Bangladesh. Even the most recent waste report of Dhaka North City Corporation does not have a single mention of plastic, neither it has recognized plastic as a waste [7].
    Regarding the rising plastic waste, Bangladesh was one of the first countries in the world to implement a nationwide ban on plastic shopping bags, given the tendency of submerged plastic bags to exacerbate floods [8]. However, the ban was not genuinely successful given countrywide lenient enforcement. Adding to the collapse was the lack of available cost-effective alternatives. Environmental policy interventions themselves create newer constraints and incentives that can affect technological progress [9]. However, many policies such as National Agricultural Policy (1999), Urban Management Policy Statement (1998) focus on specific aspects of waste. Still, they do not outline particular attributes such as waste recovery or management [10]. Acts such as the Environmental Court Act 2000 only feature environmental pollution with no reference to waste management.
    Currently, the plastic sector, directly and indirectly, employs 1.2 million people in Bangladesh [3]. Many people are involved in the process, beginning with raw material processing, supply, manufacture, and distribution to reach the consumer’s hand. 8% of the total waste generated within Bangladesh is composed of plastics, among which 0.79 MMT plastics are openly dumped in the land every year without further processing and 0.12–0.31 MMT per year finds their way to the ocean [11][12]. Degradation of the different types of plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate, HDPE, polyvinyl chloride, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene to macro, meso, micro, and nanoparticles occurs over time. Once released to the environment, treatment of bi-products such as PFOS and PFOA become even more challenging, as many conventional technologies that are used to treat organic contaminants in groundwater have proven to be ineffective or inefficient [13]. Moreover, Dhaka has a finite and declining groundwater resource [14] supplying water for domestic, industrial, and commercial use to millions of people. No existing policies focus on groundwater pollution. Most policies, including the groundwater management ordinance (1985), speak of infrastructural groundwater management at sub-district levels, which is a challenge in the absence of proper institutional arrangements [15].
    Present waste management scenarios and policies pose a severe threat to public health and safety. The high cost of recycling, lenient waste management [16] lack of technologies and awareness are the steering forces of dumping of waste plastics in the land and both small and large water bodies such as channels, lakes, rivers, and even to the sea [17] which consequently contributes to the infertility of soil and contamination of water to an extent beyond conventional management mechanisms. Policies do not consider the gravity of plastic pollution in groundwater resources in Dhaka and lack proper implementation strategies. Integrated policy approaches should be taken with consistent measures to raise awareness, recycle, and dispose to mitigate plastic pollution.

    2.2. Institutions and Agencies

    As appears in the policies and DNCC’s official documents, waste management is the most important responsibility of the city corporation. In the earlier section, researchers mentioned waste collectors while describing the flow of sing-use plastic from its domestic end-user to a landfill. They are recruited by the community-based organizations (CBOs) that manage the transfer of household wastes to a city corporation-designated secondary transfer station. The city corporation recognises these CBOs since 1987 as the Primary Waste Collection Service Provider (PWCSP). These PWCSPs function differently in different neighborhoods. In a middle-class neighborhood, every household contributes a regular payment to local volunteers to manage this activity. In an upper-class area, this task is rather given to a private contractor who happens to be a local muscleman. Researchers have shared a case of a poor neighborhood in Figure 1. In recent years, officially city corporations are trying to privatize this service. Though, a senior member of DNCC told us that there are more and more cases of local gangsters taking the PWCSP role. Researchers have also cross-checked this with the waste collectors and old members of local volunteers. In summary, though plastic has not been prioritized as a subject of environmental damage and future risk by legitimate waste management institutions, however, the function of waste management is gradually going under the control of a group that has far less accountability to society.

    3. Remediation Strategies

    Prevention is better than cure. Reduction of plastic use, starting from public awareness and legislation to remove plastic microbeads from self-care products, notable attempts at source reduction, reuse, and landfilling have been employed to reduce the necessary amount of plastic waste generated worldwide. However, only 9% of the plastics are recycled because researchers lack the technology to turn dirty waste plastics into virgin quality materials. At present, the only widely employed method in recycling plastics is mechanical. The organic component is recovered by cleaning and is then shredded, melted, and remolded–frequently in a mixture with virgin plastic of the same type, this mixture is then used to manufacture new plastic goods [18]. However, this approach cannot be applied to composites and thermosets. PET and various types of PE are recovered by processing mechanically, accounting for 9% and 37% of all plastics manufactured, while only around 1% of the residue is recovered [18].
    The scenario is changing slowly, and some companies are working towards using short-chain polymer compounds. There is enormous scope for using such compounds in the construction sector. In Bangladesh particularly, adding small amounts of adequately selected polymers to cement-based structural materials used conventionally could protect infrastructures in flood-prone areas, saving huge revenue every year [19].
    Alternatives of plastics are being introduced, being called bioplastics derived entirely from sustainable sources of biomass such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, cellulose, and lactic acid [20]. They can be made from a combination of agricultural waste and disposed-of plastic bottles and other containers, allowing freedom to tweak their properties. Another plastic management process, incineration, is a debated yet viable technology for plastic waste management. In Singapore, given the limited land resources, solid waste incineration is given precedence over all other waste transformation options [21]. They now successfully follow the waste-to-energy protocol minimizing the mass of waste dumped into landfills. Pyrolysis can also be an alternative method and is growing in Bangladesh. It produces less toxic substances under appropriate conditions with variable amounts of potentially valuable by-products [22]. Next, a number of studies evaluated the capacity of regular and innovational WWTP technologies to remove plastics [23][24] through advanced wastewater technologies such as membranes, electrodeposition, and coagulation [25]. Other inventive tertiary treatment methods such as rapid gravity sand filters and dissolved air flotation, provide removal rates of microplastics >95% from primary and secondary effluents [25]. There are also other innovative technologies targeting the removal of different polymers.
    Although research investigating the harmful toxicological effects of chemicals associated with plastics is limited, the threat is real and is here now. Most remediation strategies are viable but expensive. The feasibility of scaling in a developing country like Bangladesh is questionable. Proper development of the policy for chemical exposure caused by plastic must be urgently implemented with encouraging research in the Global South. Developing more innovative and recyclable plastic materials and efficient recycling and wastewater treatment processes must be investigated thoroughly. The mass population of Dhaka city needs to be made aware of the mechanisms and severity of the problem and the hazards of plastics on human health.


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    Contributor MDPI registered users' name will be linked to their SciProfiles pages. To register with us, please refer to :
    View Times: 2018
    Entry Collection: Environmental Sciences
    Revisions: 4 times (View History)
    Update Date: 04 Mar 2022
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