An exclusive interview of Syeda Rizwana Hasan, renowned environmentalist and chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela)
In a recent interview with The Business Standard, renowned environmentalist and chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela) Syeda Rizwana Hasan, spoke about the backdrop that lead to the landmark HC direction by the bench of Justice Moyeenul Islam Chowdhury and Justice Khandaker Diliruzzaman to ban single-use plastic products in coastal areas, hotels, motels and restaurants across the country in next one year.
TBS: How did all the petitioners reach a common ground?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: Some have extensive knowledge on technical aspects of polythene and plastic menace while others are experts on environmental issues. But all of them are alarmed by the growing rise of single use plastic items that pose threat to wetlands, agricultural lands and coastal areas. Before filing the petition, it was necessary that the team is well-equipped and backed by a group that has in-depth understanding about polythene and its proper management, people working on waste management and eco system issues, and those who have strong local presence -- as implementation of the judicial orders will require us to undertake campaigns and actions in association with the local administration. That is why, you see petitioners with diverse expertise.
TBS: Give us some of the statistics of plastic waste. Who are the key contributors of plastic waste in Bangladesh?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: Bela has been following the legal developments taking place across the globe to restrict polythene and plastics for a long time. We researched and articulated our demands in light of some of the most progressive global developments that successfully restricted use of plastics and polythene. We are following Rwanda on polythene, while on plastics, we are following the developments in neighbouring countries like India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and many others. While drafting the petition, BELA relied on the work of some leading national and international groups for facts and figures on the impact of plastics on our environment, and took assistance from Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO), the petitioner No 4. The research of National Geographic revealed that 300 different types of plastic products are making its way to the Bay of Bengal through the Padma River. The UNEP report estimates that in 2018 a total of 73,000 tonnes of plastic wastes were dumped in the bay through Padma, Jamuna and Meghna rivers. The most alarming news is that micro plastics have been found inside fish and mammals and sea salt of the Bay of Bengal. ESDO found that 87,000 tonnes of single-use plastics are thrown away annually in Bangladesh creating havoc to our lands and coastal areas. According to Waste Concern, another national level NGO, per capita annual consumption of plastic products in Dhaka was 5.56 kg in 2005 which rose to 17.24 kg in 2017.
TBS: How can the plastic ban be implemented?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: In 2003-2004, the government's crackdown on plastic and polythene resulted in its almost disappearance from the markets. But, due to lack of monitoring, it reappeared in the market. To stop production and use of polythene, government should take steps for stricter monitoring, imposing sanctions and crackdown on producers. Regarding single-use plastic, it is important to have a concrete plan, that can be drawn from the successful models implemented by other countries. In addition, mass awareness, mobilisation for use of traditionally available alternatives and on-site campaigns for example in the coastal areas, monitoring and withdrawal of incentives for the producers. The involvement and leadership of local government agencies is also crucial.
TBS: Why did polythene bags come back even after a ban? How hopeful are you about the HC directive?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: The ban was partially successful but it did not sustain as the government failed to regulate the market and producers of polythene. The failure left huge negative impact on the ecology and public health. Since the new order for enforcement of the ban came from the judiciary, I am hopeful that the government will take prompt steps in saving the country from polythene menace.
TBS: How can the directive positively impact the future and play a role in building a pollution-free Bangladesh?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: The directive is clear. It has given government a time-limit for development of its action plans and has mentioned the areas in need of immediate attention. Such directions will bring the agencies together for developing a more coordinated plan of action. I am hopeful that with a pragmatic stand, it will be possible for Bangladesh to set an example before the global community in making the country free from single use plastic.
TBS: What are the alternatives to polythene bags?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: There are plenty of alternatives. We have the usual ceramic, clay and jute items, and nowadays more creative items are being prepared using bamboo, coconut leaves, banana leaves to serve the same purpose as polythene bags.
TBS: Can jute bags fill the vacuum?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: It can. In any case, we have to ensure that our jute is revived to eliminate plastics and to create less pressure on nature by lessening reliance on ceramic and papers as alternatives. However, I think this issue of safe and eco-friendly alternatives will require informed debate, in-depth research and substantial consideration of all pros and cons by the experts.