Devastated by floods, northeast Bangladesh faces danger from plastics used for aid packaging

Jamila Bibi of Lalpur village in Sunamganj Sadar Upazila has received food aid four times for the family of eight since the devastating floods ravaged the northeastern wetland region in mid-June. Almost all the items came in polythene bags or other plastic wrappings. Unaware of the environmental threat posed by these materials, they threw away the bags and wrappings here and there.

Now floodwaters have receded, but the wetland region, called Haor in Bangla and home to diverse aquatics, faces severe environmental, social, economic and health consequences from these polythene bags and plastic wrappings. In total, Jamila's family received 60 pieces of polythene bags. Around 7.5 million people live in Sylhet and Sunamganj districts and most of them were affected by the deadly flooding. They received food aid in tens of thousands of packets from the government, non-government organisations, groups of volunteers., charities and individuals during the floods. The relief efforts have continued and fresh rains have triggered fears of water rising again, prompting the government and others to prepare for more rounds of aid distribution. 'NOT THE RIGHT MOMENT' Nowhere in Bangladesh are polythene bags or other plastic materials disposed of properly, which has become a growing threat to the environment of the country, one of the most vulnerable ones to the effects of climate change. Since the polythene bags and plastics will not decompose, they will surely obstruct the flow of water in the aquatic ecosystem of the Haors, impacting the biodiversity of the region for a long time, according to experts. Authorities and aid workers, however, are not ready to think about the long-term impact, as they are busy dealing with the immediate danger of floods. Tasrif Khan, a young singer, has been working in the flooded area since Jun 15 with his team and raised Tk 21 million for the victims. They have distributed aid among 8,000 individuals so far. “Oh, right, right! I didn't think this way. I wasn't made aware of this issue at all. If only someone would give me a hint, I might reconsider and try to find an alternative,” he said, adding that he always did his best to protect the environment. Many people, like Tasrif, are working in those flood-affected areas. One of them, activist Sayedul Haque Sumon, has collected more than Tk 15 million and handed out aid to 15,000 families. "We can talk about polythene after the floods are over. It's not the right moment to bring it up since providing food to save people's lives and aiding in their rehabilitation should be our main concerns,” he said.

Lighter Foundation distributed 1,021 packets of food. "For the sake of the greater good, we overlooked a minor issue. At that time, saving people and meeting their fundamental necessities was our top priority. Since the entire area was submerged, we eventually had to use those wrappings because we couldn't save food without doing so,” said its President Afzal Hossain.

"Right now, we're using polythene as we don't have any substitute for this," said Kashmir Reza, president of the Haor Development Council. They have given aid to almost 8,000 families.

Officials asserted that the only option they had for aid packaging amid rains and flooding was polythene bags, but they have not thought about the danger posed by the bags, banned in Bangladesh in 2002.

"Since polythene and plastic are more accessible and convenient, we used those right away. If we chose others, then the food might get wet in the rain,” said Pallab Home Das, acting executive officer of Zakiganj Upazila.

He claimed the government has issued directives to manage the plastic wastes from aid wrappings effectively.

“Currently, we are not going against polythene. We have to save the people first. We will focus on polythene later. If we carry out the operation right now, people will humiliate us,” said Sunamganj Relief and Rehabilitation Officer Md Shafiqul Islam.

Polythene is frequently used for distributing cooked dishes, particularly Khichuri, according to Emran Hossain, director of the Department of Environment in Sylhet.

"Before discussing polythene, we must first consider how many microns were used in its production. If the food is delivered in polythene that is properly manufactured, there is no problem. In general, polythene with a thickness greater than 55 microns is not very hazardous for the environment,” he said.

He, however, acknowledged that 90 percent of the polythene materials available on the market are produced without any sort of standards.

“At emergency centres, thousands of food packages are given out every day. So, without really seeing it, it's hard to tell what kind of polythene is being used. But based on my prior knowledge, I can assume that those are not eco-friendly. But it’s considerable during this situation.”

“Even though I reside in Sylhet's Uposhohor, there was no electricity and water in my home. Then just think how remote locations are doing. Until you witness it, you won't believe it. The overall situation is worse in Shalla and Gowainghat. So, we shouldn't discuss the pollution caused by polythene and plastic right now. When the water recedes, we will try to mitigate that pollution. We should now prioritise saving lives.”