The year was 2018, when Mahbub Sumon decided to do his bit for the environment. Along with his three friends, this young climate activist from Bangladesh founded Shalbrikhkho, an NGO that aims at helping people reuse, reduce and recycle daily-use products.
Two of Mahbub’s projects — BONKAGOJ and plastic from potatoes (POLKA) — have already caught the attention of thousands across social media platforms. Mahbub opened up about his work in an interview with UNB.
Q. What motivated you to work on renewable energy and eco-friendly alternatives?
While doing some basic research on the alternative power sector and renewable energy prospects, I figured out climate change as the biggest crisis for the human race.
For environmental sustainability, I soon started working on a couple of ideas like natural agriculture for cities and alternative sources of energy. Soon I focussed on developing eco-friendly alternatives to various plastic products.
I experimented with permaculture using BONKAGOJ and succeeded. The principle was — since paper is made from trees, we can use that paper to grow a tree again. I also developed POLKA (plastics from potatoes) as an alternative to polyethene.
I am also experimenting with different innovative projects in the renewable energy sector and alternative eco-friendly lifestyle changes.
Q. What is BONKAGOJ?
It’s a handmade paper that can be used like any other ordinary paper. But after its use, if anyone puts the paper in a soggy pot, a flower garden will sprout from it within weeks.
Worldwide billions of trees are chopped down every year, many for producing paper. Single-use paper and paper products pollute cities. So, I harped on the idea of turning waste papers into a flower garden to save the environment.
BONKAGOJ, a biodegradable product, is made from recycled paper and embedded with different plant seeds.
Q. When did you first think of introducing such a recycled paper?
In fact, we first toyed with the idea of recycling used papers and making the same eco-friendly in the beginning of 2018. Finally we could launch the product in December 2019.
The idea is not new. This biodegradable eco-paper has been in use in the US since 1941. In 2016, leading Japanese daily ‘The Mainichi Shimbunsha’, was the first to introduce a ‘green newspaper’, a 100% sustainable newspaper made from recycled and vegetable paper.
The production procedure is not space science. Discarded paper is collected, then shredded, soaked and eventually turned into pulp before being placed in dice. Seeds of different vegetables and flowers are used in the production of the eco-friendly paper.
We are producing BONKAGOJ in different sizes — from A4 to business and invitation cards. While it is thicker and expensive than any normal paper, we have recently started making a thinner version of this paper for writing purposes.
This special paper must be used within a year, otherwise the embedded seeds may not germinate.
Though we are currently producing 1,200-1,500 pieces of BONKAGOJ every month, we plan to ramp up production in the days to come. We can bring down its selling price once we start large-scale production of the same. Currently, the demand for the product is low.
What is POLKA?
POLKA is an alternative to polythene shopping bags. It’s basically a bioplastic product made from potatoes.
The idea of making POLKA came to my mind first when I visited Munshiganj and found several potato cold storages incurring losses for years. With the help of my German friend, Jan Schmidt, I made the first bag using potato starch.
After many trials and errors, I succeeded in making the biodegradable and eco-friendly product, which is an alternative to toxic polythene.
Bangladesh was one of the first countries in the world to ban thinner plastic bags in 2002, in an effort to reduce the uses of plastic. But the ban has had little success.
According to the Department of Environment (DoE), Bangladesh generates around 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. The excessive use of polythene bags leads to numerous problems especially in the city area, not to mention the environmental woes.
We are producing POLKA but the pandemic and financial scarcity have throttled our production process. Anyway, we intend to start large-scale production by 2023.
What are the challenges in your field?
We face numerous challenges while working on renewable energy and eco-friendly alternative products. Most of these innovative ideas are new in our society and it takes time to convince people.
We also need financial support from government and non-government organisations. At the same time, the government should focus on renewable energy and biodegradable alternative products for a sustainable future.
To meet this country’s growing energy needs, the government has to focus on renewable energy sources.
Fortunately, the country is slowly trying to switch over to renewable sources. We have also started building the first nuclear power plant, and thinking of newer ways to generate more energy for residential and commercial use.
We have to change the mode of electricity production — from fossil fuel to renewable energy — and we need to be prudent and make investment in the safe energy sector. Currently, Bangladesh is almost self-sufficient in power production.
For the next 50 years, we have to think about a sustainable energy plan and how we can shift completely to cleaner, greener energy sources while also keeping up efficiency, cost-effectiveness and production rate.