DHAKA -- Long before Bangladesh became known for its low-end apparel sweatshops, it had a top-class jute industry. Fiber that grew best in the humid swamps of the Ganges delta was weaved into biodegradable rope, sacks and carpets, then sold around the world.
Jute went into serious decline following the development of the petroleum-based synthetic packaging industry, whose bags now litter many streets and waterways. A shift back to jute products like burlap might have substantial global environmental benefits. But Bangladesh's jute industry is hurting.
Bangladesh's jute export earnings for the year ending March 2013 were $193.52 million. This past fiscal year they were $92 million. Exports to Thailand fell by more than 80% between July 2013 and April 2014, apparently because a major Thai rice producer switched from burlap to plastic bags.
Exports to the big markets of India and Indonesia are also falling, as are prices: The global price of burlap sack fell 7.5% in fiscal 2014, according to research by the Center for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank. Dozens of Bangladeshi jute mills have closed in the past year.
"We are (the) curators of a museum," joked Shahidul Karim, secretary of the Bangladesh Jute Spinners Association, an industry body.
Competing with supercheap plastic remains difficult. There is one hope. Mahbub Ullah, executive secretary of the International Jute Study Group in Dhaka, said the "immense" environmental benefits of jute offer the possibility of a renaissance for this venerable industry -- if the opportunities could be embraced.
"One hectare (10,000 sq. meters) of jute plants can offset carbon dioxide emissions from 20 cars a year, " Ullah said.
He also noted that nature can quickly reclaim burlap, whereas plastic bags take hundreds of years to decay. "An estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic are floating in every square kilometer of ocean," he said. "Distressingly, seabirds and mammals die from ingesting these plastics."
Jute could not only replace plastic packaging, Ullah said, but also be blended with other materials into biocomposites for use in car interiors, electronic casings and other surfaces.
Fawaz Rob, an architect who teaches at North South University in Dhaka, said jute could also be used as a building material instead of tin. The metallic element is widely used in Bangladeshi housing but is prone to rust and provides little insulation. A clinic in rural Faridpur, about 140km southwest of Dhaka, was built with a jute-tin material that has proven to have much better insulation properties than similar buildings built with tin alone. The jute-tin material is also rustproof and more sustainable, Fawaz Rob said.
Compliance is optional
Efforts to help the jute industry exploit its green credentials have yielded few results. A 2010 law requiring domestic packagers to use jute sacks for rice, sugar and other agricultural products should have been implemented in April but was still not in full force in late June, according to Khondaker Golam Moazzem, a researcher at the CPD.
The government recently set a revised deadline of July 1 for compliance, and Mirza Azam, state minister for textiles and jute, has threatened that teams of law enforcers will tour packaging facilities to ensure adherence. However, industry officials said that packaging companies are unlikely to willingly comply, given that jute sacks are five times the price of plastic.
Like other sectors in strife-ridden Bangladesh, jute has suffered from poor management. The industry was nationalized following Bangladesh's independence, in 1971, and state-owned enterprises still account for more than half of it. Productivity in the state sector fell 33% from 2002 to 2007, according to a study by the CPD.
The state-owned Bangladesh Jute Mills Corp. "is in really bad shape," said Ahmed Hossain, managing director of Nawab Abdul Malek Jute Mills, a private jute spinning mill. "If you ask them to go for full swing production, they can't do it," he said. "Their machinery, their management are in very bad shape. So the mandatory packaging act may be impossible" to implement.
Hossain said the state-owned corporation is "paying idle wages for 30-40% of its workers' time" because of power outages or other technical stoppages. His own company, he said, loses $150 on every ton it sells.
With the sector unable to leverage jute's inherent environmental advantages, the future looks bleak.