Can Earth Day truly stir our collective conscience towards sustainable development?

A distressing news has surfaced recently in the US media, where reports of a man immolating himself at New York's Prospect Park, Brooklyn on April 14, the same day as the Bengalis celebrated Pohela Boishakh. Not to be brushed aside as a daily dose of suicide news, this person was a prominent lawyer and LGBT rights activist who had apparently left one of US's top legal firms because he was passionate about raising awareness on the effects of climate change.

David Buckel, 60, had emailed a suicide note to the New York Times and other media outlets, writing that he had used fossil fuel to symbolize what was happening to the planet. "Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather," the note said. "Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result -- my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves." His suicide note expressed the hope that his death would serve as a call to action.

On April 22, the world is going to celebrate Earth Day in honour of the environmental movement that began in the 1970s. While issues like pollution and climate change require intervention on a policy level, there remains the need for greater environmental awareness on a micro level in Bangladesh.

One day for our planet

Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network (EDN), wrote about the annual Earth Day that "Close to 48 years ago, on 22 April 1970, millions of people took to the streets to protest the negative impacts of 150 years of industrial development. Earth Day is now a global event each year, and we believe that more than 1 billion people in 192 countries now take part in what is the largest civic-focused day of action in the world."

This year, it was mentioned in EDN's website that Earth Day 2018 will focus on mobilizing the world to End Plastic Pollution, including creating support for a global effort to eliminate single-use plastics along with global regulation for the disposal of plastics. EDN will educate millions of people about the health and other risks associated with the use and disposal of plastics, including pollution of our oceans, water, and wildlife, and about the growing body of evidence that decomposing plastics are creating serious global problems.

From poisoning and injuring marine life to the ubiquitous presence of plastics in our food to disrupting human hormones and causing major life-threatening diseases and early puberty, the exponential growth of plastics is threatening our planet's survival. EDN has built a multi-year campaign to End Plastic Pollution.

"Our goals include ending single-use plastics, promoting alternatives to fossil fuel-based materials, promoting 100 percent recycling of plastics, corporate and government accountability and changing human behavior concerning plastics."

EDN's End Plastic Pollution campaign includes four major components:

● Leading a grassroots movement to support the adoption of a global framework to regulate plastic pollution;

● Educating, mobilizing and activating citizens across the globe to demand that governments and corporations control and clean up plastic pollution;

● Educating people worldwide to take personal responsibility for plastic pollution by choosing to reject, reduce, reuse and recycle plastics, and

● Promoting local government regulatory and other efforts to tackle plastic pollution.

Earth Day Network will leverage the platform of Earth Day and the growing interest in the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day in 2020 as a catalyst for global action.

Where is Bangladesh in all this?

We do a great deal to raise awareness and warn future generations that our planet's natural resources cannot be replenished. Climate change is a daunting reality and we have to be conscious of our carbon footprint... the list of issues to reckon with is exhaustive. But let's look at the nitty-gritty: beyond just being a day for individuals to reflect on their choices and how they affect our planet, Earth Day should be a reminder that communities need to collaborate; government leaders, policymakers and non-governmental development organisations alike must make it a point to recognise the importance of environmental protection and how it affects their work.

With this year's objective being to end plastic pollution, it might be imperative to look at research papers which talked about the perils of plastic, such as the Environment and Social Development Organisation (ESDO)'s 2016 study titled "Microbeads Pollution Scenario in Bangladesh". The study talked in great lengths about how the culprits are tiny plastic beads in the products known as microbeads. Microbeads are non-biodegradable, cheap tiny plastic particles, that pose serious threat to the environment, and human and animal health, experts say.

The study also said that 60 most popular and commonly used beauty and cleaning products in Bangladesh, including face wash, detergent, body wash, nail polish, toothpaste, and face and body scrub contain these harmful microbeads.

Every month, around 8,000 billion microbeads flow to the water bodies in and around three major cities -- Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet, according to the study. In Dhaka city alone, approximately 7,000 billion microbeads get in the surrounding water bodies and wastelands. In Chittagong city, the number is some 1,000 billion while it is around 200 billion in Sylhet city.

Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, additional research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), told Dhaka Courier that Bangladesh is perhaps one of the countries with fastest growth in consumption of plastic products during the last decade. Between 2005 and 2014, plastic consumption in urban areas of the country has increased significantly (by 169 per cent although overall national consumption has increased by 16.2 percent) which is even higher compared to other countries and regions such as North America (32 per cent), Asia (80 per cent), Europe (37 per cent) and world (25 per cent). The growth in consumption of plastic products will continue in the coming decade. This possible rise in plastic consumption may lead to huge plastic waste in municipal areas which need to be properly managed.

Researchers at The Ocean Cleanup - a Dutch foundation developing new technologies for ridding the oceans of plastic - say rivers carry an estimated 1.15-2.41m tonnes of plastic into the sea every year, an amount that need between 48,000 to over 100,000 dump trucks to carry it away. The Yangtze, the world's third-longest river, "is the largest contributing catchment", dumping some 330,000 tonnes of plastic into the East China Sea. This is followed by the Ganges River in India and a combination of the Xi, Dong and Zhujiang Rivers in China as well as four Indonesian rivers: the Brantas, Solo, Serayu and Progo.

Dhaka's Buriganga is also on that list, as waste dumping has affected lives and livelihood of millions of people on the river bank and adjacent areas.

Gedu Miah, a boatman who runs boat across Buriganga for few decades said, water of Buriganga was once well and there were huge fishes in the river, but now water is poisonous and creating diseases. Manik Bepari, a resident of the riverbank said, he has seen the water clean in 1995, but after that tannery wastes contaminated the water.

Sultana Kamal, vice president of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), told Dhaka Courier that plastic waste dumping is increasing and enhancing river pollution. The contribution of the environmental activists, she added, should be more vocal just like in the climate change issue.

Educationist and social activist Rasheda K. Choudhury said, without considering affected people, the government is trying to save the river polluters rather than punishing them. Referring to a recent study, she said, about 25 percent children in the capital city are being affected with different diseases due to polluted water and air.

Corporate organisations, as part of their CSR activities, have always pledged allegiance to the Earth Day. Top mobile network operator Banglalink, during Earth Day, makes it a point to greet its customers with saplings and messages to spread awareness about protecting the environment. As an environmentally responsible Digital organization, it understands the worth of Earth's limited resources.

Taimur Rahman, Chief Corporate and Regulatory Affairs Officer, Banglalink said that Banglalink supports environmentally friendly policies which reflect through our work strategy. We believe customers are our biggest strength and therefore we have taken such step to spread the awareness message among them. We hope, it is going to be executed not only for today, but this should be a continuous practice for creating a sustainable environment. Banglalink will continue implementing similar initiatives as it moves forward and aspires to be the leading Digital communication service provider of Bangladesh."

Taking it for granted?

Experts say that the consequences of climate change and migration will be most severe for those least responsible for causing it and least able to deal with its effects - in other words, the developing world. Areas that have been identified as 'hotspots,' such as the Asian megadelta that is Bangladesh, are most prone to multiple existing natural and human-induced stresses including exposure to cyclone hazards and limited scope for inland migration. Combined with high population density, these factors provide considerable justification for a better understanding of the potential impact of climate change and migration in Bangladesh.

Even though we consider Earth Day as a time to remind ourselves to turn off the lights when we leave the room, or unplug electronics when leaving the house, let us take a moment to remind our policymakers, leaders and NGOs the importance of environmental protection for the future of our rapidly-changing country. More research needs to be conducted on environmental migrants and why their locality impedes their path out of poverty. When these indications are taken into consideration in designing and planning development programme initiatives, only then can we transform our city, the country and one day hopefully the world, to forge our sustainable future on Earth - the only planet that will actually have us.

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