Golden fibre: an alternative for plastic?

Popularising jute as a substitute for plastic could strengthen the fight against the climate crisis.

by Casper Ohm

We produce more than 350 million tons of plastic waste every year. This undeniable addiction to non-biodegradable material is causing severe irreversible consequences. If this continues, oceans will have more plastic than fish by 2050.

As some countries struggle to find solutions to the plastic problem, through recycling and bans on single-use items like shopping bags and straws, an unassuming vegetable fibre could be a solution.  

Jute, grown quickly and abundantly in Bangladesh and India, could be a sustainable alternative. But it has some big shoes to fill if it is to replace plastic in the near future. 

People love plastic, but it is a threat to human health. Out of all the plastic produced annually, more than 8 million tons finds its way into our oceans. Apart from the visual downside, plastic pollution threatens our drinking water and is highly harmful to marine life.

To put the brakes on the increasing amount of plastic waste, recycling was introduced in the 1970s. However, recycling plastic is not as simple as it seems.

Not every plastic waste is recyclable. Moreover, producing plastic from scratch is cheaper than collecting, sorting, and processing disposable material and the quality of recycled plastic is less elastic and never as pure. So a clear plastic soda bottle can’t be recycled into the same product.

A blessing and a curse

The true problem with plastic lies in one of its many qualities: durability. And as it is a human-made material, as it breaks down it gets released into the soil and finds its way into water sources. It is estimated that a single plastic water bottle can take up to 450 years to decompose.

But most harmful of all is single-use plastics such as plastic cups, coffee capsules, and the notorious plastic bags. 

Every year, roughly 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide. More than one million bags are used every minute. To make matters worse, a single plastic bag has an average “working life” of only 15 minutes.

As a result, more than 60 countries around the world have partially or completely banned single-use plastic items. This has laid bare the need for a replacement.

A promising alternative

Known as the “golden fibre”, jute is cheap, strong, and durable. It’s the material that is used to make burlap sacks. But unlike plastic, it poses no threat to the environment. 

Even compared to paper, jute is biodegradable and hence, environmentally-friendly. The switch to paper bags, for instance, increases the number of trees that need to be cut down. Jute, on the other hand, does not require a lot of farming space, it can be grown without the need for pesticide or fertiliser, and requires less water than most crops.

In contrast, jute plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2)–one of the major greenhouse gases contributing to global warming–and release oxygen at a rate several times higher than trees. According to some studies, one hectare of jute plants consumes nearly 15 tonnes of CO2 and releases 11 tonnes of oxygen. Additionally, jute does not generate toxic gases when burned. 

Increasing jute production will also meet five criteria of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). That has wealthy countries like Germany taking notice, where “Jute Instead of Plastic” projects are up and running.

Uses of Jute

As a versatile plant fibre, jute can be used for a variety of purposes. Thus serving a handful of industries that span from home furnishings and clothing to geotextiles and shopping bags.

A few years ago, Bangladeshi scientist Dr Mubarak Ahmad Khan presented a product made from jute that could be a game-changer in the battle against single-use plastic, the Sonali (golden in Bangladeshi) bag.

These single-use biodegradable bags look and feel just like your ordinary plastic bag. But unlike polythene bags, the Sonali bag turns into ashes when burned, it dissolves into water within 4-5 hours, its tensile strength is 1.5 times higher, and it degrades in the soil in a few months. 

Economic Opportunity 

India and Bangladesh are the world’s largest producers of jute fibre. Therefore, if jute proves to be a replacement for daily single-use plastic items, both countries possess great potential to create thousands of jobs, boost the local economy, and reach global markets. 

More than 2,000 Sonali bags are cranked out by Bangladesh every day, but this will have to scale up enormously to prove a viable alternative.

Bangladesh can only meet one-fourth of the global demand for the Sonali bags, according to Dr Mubarak, other developing countries with a similar climate such as Thailand, Pakistan, and Nepal could help meet the global demand for jute bags along with other products. 

Currently, the jute industry supports around four million people around the world. 

Securing the future of our planet

Since its invention, plastic has revolutionised nearly every aspect of our lives. However, the miracle of plastic has also created an environmental scourge.

Plastic production is one of the most energy-intensive processes and–from cradle to grave; its emissions will produce 56 gigatons of greenhouse gasses between now and 2050 at current levels ,according to the Centre for International Environmental Law.

Jute is sustainable and cost-effective. Both the environment and local economies will benefit from producing more jute. It might not be the final solution to plastic, but it can certainly help ween humans off a destructive addiction. 

However, for the jute to prove its worth as a potential replacement for plastic, some challenges need to be overcome. Lack of capital and investment have been a major constraint on the improvement of the industry. 

The current machinery used in the majority of jute mills in India is outdated, which affects productivity, product quality, and the overall competitiveness of the sector. Replacing the Indian market’s plastic consumption with domestically produced jute could also be enough on its own to convince others to make the switch.

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