Throughout markets in Bangladesh’s biggest cities, plastic bags continue to change hands nine years after the government outlawed their use.
At Mirpur fish market in the capital Dhaka, fishmonger Sahabuddin Ahmed greeted a customer soon after opening his stall. To close the deal, he produced a plastic bag from a hidden corner to bag the fish.
Activists say lack of enforcement of the plastic bag ban and the absence of a cost-effective alternative are responsible for the failure to wipe out plastic at the marketplace - and beyond.
Polythene shopping bags were introduced in Bangladesh nearly three decades ago, quickly replacing traditional cloth jute bags. At the time of the 2002 ban, environmental groups calculated more than nine million plastic bags were dumped in the city - daily.
About 10 percent made it to rubbish bins with many of the remaining castaways ending up blocking drains and sewers.
Environmentalists and urban planners blamed plastic bags for exacerbating deadly flooding in 1989 and 1998.
Hossain Shahriar, a Bangladeshi ecologist, said the city will no longer be liveable if people continue to prefer plastics.
“Dhaka is an unplanned city and the drainage system in this city is not up to the mark. As you know plastic is non-biodegradable; it creates [a] problem in [the] drainage system,” Shahriar said.
Another pitfall with plastics? “Polythene remains intact in the soil, it causes [a] problem for soil fertility which is a big concern in this food-producing country,” he added.
Bangladesh is losing 1 percent of arable land every year, in part due to erratic rains and land degradation, according to the UN World Food Programme.
Lack of enforcement
After the ban, the government, environmental groups and NGOs carried out awareness programmes on TV and in mass information campaigns, warning offenders that they could be fined up to the equivalent of US$71 and six months of imprisonment for using polythene bags.
“After the ban, people did not use it for at least one year. But then we saw the same old things and plastic bags just flooded the market due to lack of enforcement,” Shahriar said.
“We do not see any effectiveness of the ban,” said Abu Naser Khan, chairman of a local NGO, Save the Environment Movement.
“In some cases, vigilance authorities [government enforcement officers] are not serious and set people free without fining them, and instead, just take a bribe.”
But the director-general of the Department of Environment, Monowar Islam, said his officers are doing the best they can. “It is a small department and plastic bags are not our only issue, but we have to work on many other environmental issues,” he said.
No cheap alternative
Fishmonger Sahabuddin Ahmed said he had no affordable option other than plastic. One jute bag costs him up to the equivalent of 7 US cents, about the same price as 10 plastic bags.
“Paper bags are another alternative, but it is not possible to carry fish with paper bags,” he said.
“Sometimes, people force us to give them plastic bags,” said a grocery shop owner in Mirpur, Babul Hossain. “There must be a cost-effective alternative to make the ban effective.”
For those observing the ban, the decision has cut into profits. “I know plastic bags are harmful for the environment. I do not give plastic bags even though I lose business for not providing them,” said shopkeeper Mohammad Raju.
Meanwhile, customers are divided. “It is not always possible to bring jute bags to the market. Without plastic bags, sometimes it is impossible to do shopping,” said Habibur Rahman.
But Nurul Haque is never far from her jute shopping bag: “It is a matter of habit. I always bring jute bags to the market. I know plastic bags are harmful for the environment and our health. So I do not use them.”
NGO chairman Khan said killing off plastics may have another benefit. “It [would be] helpful to revive the domestic jute market.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions