Plastics In The Middle East: A Growing Menace Or A Diminishing Reality
As per reports, 9% of the total plastic waste that was prepared, used, and discarded has had the capacity to be recycled. This explains the deplorable state of the oceans and piled-up landfills, causing immeasurable damage to the Earth. Plastics have played the role of ‘The Indispensable’ in modern society for far too long. However, waste and its safe disposal is an inextricable part of the same society.
According to Ecomena, a typical UAE resident uses 450 plastic water bottles on average in a single year. With the equivalent of 43 gallons on average per person in 2011, the United Arab Emirates had the fourth-highest level of bottled water consumption in the world.
The Middle East has been invested in radical transformation drives throughout the region with the support of the private sector and the public alike. Concrete action means having to carefully analyse what has worked in different parts of the world but rapidly replicating and enacting measures that have been taken. Reducing single-use plastics is no longer one of the ‘options’ but a mandate that needs to be followed.
Take Dubai for example which has recently come up with pay-to-play options for its daily activities. Gulf business reported, Starting July 1, a tariff of 25 fils on single-use plastic bags will be implemented in Dubai. As per the legislation, customers will be charged at the checkout if they do not bring their own reusable bags or buy one… The policy will be evaluated over several stages until single-use carry bags are completely banned over a span of two years.
According to sources, the tariff is slated to be implemented across all stores in Dubai including, retail, textile and electronic stores, restaurants, pharmacies, and e-commerce deliveries.
Saudi Arabia is not far behind. According to the recent legal frameworks of SASO, the Saudi organization responsible for plastic products, the packaging must be made of approved oxo-biodegradable material. “There is no difference here whether the plastic is produced in Saudi Arabia or imported into the country,” explained Larbi El-Attari of the Swiss Business Hub when in conversation with Switzerland Global Enterprise. And Attari is right. When it comes to plastic, it isn’t the origin but the destination that matters.
In Egypt too things are moving forward. According to Egyptian Streets, Egypt’s Minister of Environment Yasmin Fouad announced in March 2021 that Banlastic will join the Ministry in the initiation of a project to reduce plastic waste across Egypt’s coastal regions in cooperation with the World Bank.
It is at this point that the second key stakeholder namely companies and corporates is expected to step in. It is a known fact that backed by media frenzy, companies and corporates have the power to directly influence customer behaviour. “With UAE’s aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and hosting the COP28, it’s high time as a community we realise the impact of single-use bags on the environment. Regardless of the size, big or small, all retailers can do their bit to encourage the use of recycled and reusable packaging which enables lesser wastage as well as a diversion away from landfills,” said James Scott, CEO at Grandiose Supermarkets in Dubai.
Another important player is the Brunel Middle East & India region’s staff which keeps taking little steps to ensure its commitment to planet initiatives is not put on the back-burner. It is interesting to note that they replaced all plastic water bottles from their desks with glass bottles, metal wastepaper baskets, and biodegradable garbage bags. In fact, they have told their staff to opt for drinking water dispensing machines over mineral water altogether.
Majid Al Futtaim has gone a step further, becoming the first company in the MENA region to commit to phasing out the distribution of single-use plastic by 2025. The fact that they too have a set target date is heartening because this means others will follow. The policy they have drawn up at al Futtaim will impact their businesses, shopping malls, cinemas, and hotels apart from their corporate offices, in the next five years. According to the company, The decision may not be popular with all of our customers, but we are committed to stimulating change nevertheless.
Everything however boils down to the individual. For example in Egypt, Ahmed from Banlastic while speaking to the press made sure to note the importance of wider public outreach. “These parts of the community are not necessarily all environmental activists, they’re just people who care. And they truly want to be part of the equation.” Incentives that come in cash or kind for “green shoppers” are slated to change and create a positive clean image for the public. Good use of marketing campaigns and “nudge theory” could help to persuade customers to act on their good intentions.
It is important to take the tinier steps to bring to life the whole picture. When staff is advised to carry re-usable canvas or paper bags to carry items to the office instead of plastic it makes a difference. When customers are advised upon ordering delivery food from restaurants, to opt for zero plastic cutlery, it also creates a difference. To create change one must be an enabler and that cannot happen with an individual or a company working in isolation.
With the three stakeholders taken care of, one must turn their attention to the second important idea in packaging and that includes the overall logistics. According to various reports finding a resourceful clean way to penetrate existing supply chains is important.
A clever example here is mangoes which may arrive in protective polystyrene trays and cardboard boxes may be delivered wrapped and sealed with plastic film just to ensure that the fruit is not damaged by the time it reaches the end user. The question that arises is, Is this the Only available way out? Should this issue be catered to it would become an additional opportunity to reduce unnecessary single-use plastics and different solutions to the way goods are transported and delivered around the world can be found and put to good use.
The question that stems from the entire debate on plastics is, Is a blanket ban really enough? Can plastic really be banned? What about manufacturers of plastic? How do they carve their way out to survival? Harnessing technology in the right way could perhaps be one of many answers available.
Technology offers multiple solutions. Social media campaigns are known to create a significant impact on locals. In Georgia, a hard-hitting campaign showing pictures of trees strewn with plastic bags won widespread public support in 2015, ultimately leading to a total ban this year. This is a classic example of Social Media initiating behavioural change. Innovative companies have come up with the idea of planting a tree when you opt for reusable and recyclable bags. Phone reminders to take your reusable bags with you could help lower the need for opting for a bag at the supermarket.
While in landfills, plastics are known to contribute to environmental imbalance by emitting harmful greenhouse gases, which lead to ‘global warming’. This is apart from plastic waste being a civic menace. When in open areas, animals ingest plastic bags, mistaking them for food. Almost 50 percent of the camels that die every year in the UAE die from ingesting them which can lead to massive calcified balls of plastic in the stomachs that eventually kill the animals. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, “There’s still much to learn about microplastic’s health effects, but exposure in animals has been linked to liver and cell damage, infertility, inflammation, cancer, and starvation.” In short, we are playing with the ecological balance too.
According to Research and Development World, Mechanical recycling of consumer material back to original or higher value use largely remains an aspirational goal, with much of the recycled material going to lower-value use. Chemical recycling describes methods that convert plastics to monomers, enabling the production of virgin polymer again without fear of contamination. Chemical recycling recycles produces material suitable for original or higher value use. This means that with the right amount of research, perhaps the earlier 9% plastic could soon be 90% plastic in a short period of time.
Enforcing bans may be of some use if the same is done gradually in a weaning-off process. One cannot forget that ban or no ban, there is a sizable amount of plastic available on the planet that needs to be taken care of and our method as a collective should be to find alternatives not just for plastic users but also for plastic manufacturers.
In the words of David Suzuki, We are living in a plastic world. The longer we delay, the more difficult change becomes. It's time for new ideas.