Sonali Bags: The Promising Biodegradable Alternative To Plastic Caught Up In A Bureaucratic Mess

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Even as countries around the world try to cut down on plastic carry bags, a Bangladeshi scientist found an alternative polymer to the non-biodegradable plastic. Made from jute, a material found in plenty both in that country and neighboring India, his invention, Sonali Bags has the potential to solve a part of the nuisance caused by plastic bags.

His concept was ultimately converted into a product back in 2018 as part of a pilot project. It was praised for its practical use and innovative skill. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheik Hasina praised and promoted Sonali Bags on world Environment Day. She had urged people to switch from plastic to biodegradable alternatives like Sonali bags. The name comes from the Bengali name for gold, as jute is referred to as the golden fiber.

Made from a cellulose-based biodegradable bioplastic alternate to polythene bags, it was developed by Mubarak Ahmad Khan. This cellulose comes from jute. The process devised by Khan can convert jute fiber into biodegradable cellulose sheets that are flexible and decompose after being buried for 3 months.

All the features of plastic are present in the fiber made from jute extract without the negative effects of the former. Mubarak Khan is a scientific adviser to Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC), a state-run entity, and was the leader of the team that developed Sonali Bags. He says that the product is biodegradable and compostable.

The material can also be used in garments and in the food packaging industry, and they have been proven safe for human health. Polythene bags were banned back in 2002 in Bangladesh following environmental concerns. But the ban is rarely enforced. Estimates put the use of polythene bags in the capital Dhaka alone at 410 million every month. Some rivers have developed a 10 feet deep layer of discarded plastic.

Single-Use Plastic: The Bane Of The Environment

Single-use plastic is the scourge of the environment and Asian countries have put up laws that have so far proved ineffective in curbing the menace. One reason has been the laws have been geared towards the prevention of its use, but little has been done to stop the production of the materials.

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Single-use plastic comprises polythene bags, food wrappers, drinking bottles, straws, bottle caps, and Styrofoam plates and cups. It piles up alarmingly quickly in the environment and is not easily disposed of as they do not decompose or biodegrade. They break up into what is known as microplastics and enter the food chain through the oceans. Over 100,000 aquatic animals die after choking from plastics. Every third leatherback turtle is found with plastic in its stomach.

Sonali Bags Facing Challenges In Conversion To A Mass Product

Two major challenge that the product faces is the high cost of production. It is almost double that of polythene but then when it factors in the environmental costs of polythene, it is cheaper. And once mass production begins, the costs are expected to come down considerably.

sonali bags

But a couple of years down the line the project seems to have been caught in a bureaucratic tangle. The emphasis has shifted from the research and development of the exciting product to find a way out of the bureaucratic tangle the project has been caught up in.

Khan has hinted that he isn’t getting the support from the administration that he had expected to make Sonali Bags a success, though foreign buyers have evinced keen interest in the product.

But government sources said that they have not been informed of the finalization of the product and hence are delaying the green signal for the commercial part of the project. They hinted that Khan was too secretive about his product and feared losing his grip on the technology. But Khan says that the actual problem lies in investments that would help ramp up commercial production of the product.

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While Khan has said an investment of around Tk400 crore (around $47 million), the government has released only Tk10 crore that was used for buying chemicals and machinery and was not sufficient for commercial production of Sonali Bags.

Though the bags are expensive compared to polythene bags, at 30 microns, it is stronger and can carry weights up to 16 kilograms.

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