Abu Dhabi’s admirable fight against plastic pollution

New policy includes developing legislation to limit the use of all plastic materials



by

Rasha Abu Baker

Published: Wed 19 Jan 2022, 9:43 PM

Last updated: Mon 24 Jan 2022, 10:08 AM

Abu Dhabi has revealed big plans for eliminating single-use plastic bags in the battle to reduce large-scale pollution as the city plans to declare itself totally free of single-use plastics by the end of this year.

The comprehensive policy, the first-of-its-kind in the region, was announced in 2020 and aims to remove polluting plastics from the environment and eliminate the use of avoidable single-use plastic and non-plastic materials by fostering a culture throughout society of recycling and re-use, and encouraging more sustainable practices in the community.

This is an incredibly important issue because the harmful effects of plastic pollution are spectacularly alarming. The majority of plastics take between 500 and 1,000 years to fully degrade, and shockingly, 40 per cent of plastic is used only once before being discarded. While it may be uncomfortable reading, it is vital that we understand the repercussions of uncontrolled plastic waste.

According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, 8-13 million tonnes of plastics find its way into the world’s oceans every year, 50 per cent of the planet’s marine turtles have eaten plastic, and 90 per cent of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs.

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is a floating island of plastic waste, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – it is 1.6 million square kilometers, an area three times the size of France, and it is caused by the inefficient disposal of plastic waste. It is killing marine life and entering the human food chain.

The scope of Abu Dhabi’s new policy includes developing legislation to limit the use of all plastic materials in the emirate with a phased approach, with incentives to target consumption of single-use plastic bags, introduce fees on some materials which have easily available alternatives to prevent distribution of single-use plastic materials free of charge and, finally, instigating a total ban on a range of products.

These include plastic bags, beverage cups and lids, plastic cutlery, straws and stirrers and food containers. Plastic bottles will initially be targeted through the introduction of a plastic bottle return deposit scheme which can even help develop a micro-economy for youngsters who could earn pocket money by collecting empty plastic bottles in their neighbourhoods and returning them for cash.

We use single-use plastics every day without really noticing it, from coffee cups to grocery bags and utensils, and unfortunately, we also don’t notice that plastic waste causes the death of over 100,000 marine animals and one million marine birds every year, according to Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.

But the news is not all bad. A number of other countries have successfully replaced single-use plastic bags with paper bags or reusable bags made from recycled materials. In 2016, France became the first country in the world to introduce a ban on the manufacturing and sale of single-use plastic cups, cutlery, plates and takeaway food boxes. Initially, the law required all disposable tableware to be made from 50 per cent bio-sourced materials that can be composted at home and this rises to 60 per cent by the year 2025. Also in 2016, France banned shops from distributing plastic bags and just this month extended the plastics ban to fruit and vegetable packaging, reflecting the country’s commitment to completely phase out single-use plastics by 2040.

Norway is another nation to have seen success in its fight against pollution, this time with its bottle-deposit return scheme. To date, an impressive 97 per cent of the nation’s plastic bottles have been returned for recycling since the scheme began in 2014.

There are even some unexpected countries that have banned single-use plastics, including India, Chile and Rwanda, which became the world’s first ‘plastic-free’ nation in 2009 after it introduced a ban on all plastic bags and plastic packaging. Anyone who is caught with a plastic item can face a jail sentence of up to six months, which sounds harsh but it has worked: you don’t see plastic bags floating around windswept streets, hanging from trees, plugging up drains or finding their way into Rwanda’s rivers, lakes and waterways today.

This is important because plastic waste is more than just a local environmental disaster in the making. It is also important because of the estimated 8-13 million tonnes of plastics entering our oceans each year, mutating vital marine habitats, endangering wildlife and having an impact on the food chain by releasing chemicals.

For the UAE, this issue is of grave concern to the authorities who are concerned with the preservation of our local species. Pollution also poses a threat to our own delicate marine wildlife; dugongs, sea turtles and seabirds among others. Our local policy is a timely response to a global issue.

Dr Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, Secretary-General of Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi, said at the time the policy was announced: “If we do not take bold steps to contain the use of single-use plastics through influencing behavior and effective waste management, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans and seas by 2050 – creating lasting impacts, not just on ocean health, but ultimately human health and global food security.”

So how can we as individuals help, and what bold steps should we be taking?

I always try to put everything in just one bag and will refuse extra ones if what I have with me is big enough. All that extra packaging and a ‘one item/one bag’ attitude are totally unnecessary. If you buy a bottle of perfume in the mall, check that it fits in your handbag before agreeing for it to be wrapped up in a pretty paper, placed in a bag, and finished with a (plastic) ribbon! Even better, a local store I use has begun to put paper bags in its fruit and vegetable section and that is a fantastic idea, but they are small and not suitable for a whole family’s shopping.

Why not get a ‘bag-for-life’ and leave it in the car for every shopping trip, even if it’s only to the local baqala, but remember, these bags are apparently only better for the environment if they are used a minimum of 10 times, so use and re-use as much as possible.

Shopping bags come in all designs and sizes, and buyer beware: Some fancy ones can cost more than Dh10,000 which for some is all the rage now, like the Dior tote which can be used for multiple purposes such as shopping, a beach bag and a work bag. With that price tag, I would expect it to last more than a lifetime! Personally, I find that the jute hessian bags are the best as they are not only affordable, they are guaranteed 100 per cent biodegradable.

Abu Dhabi also plans to limit the use of plastic bottles and an incentive-based plastic bottle return scheme will be introduced. After the bottles are collected, they can be recycled to make different products, including clothing, bags, car parts, containers, furniture, and new plastic bottles. This could spawn a variety of new businesses.

There is already a UAE start-up doing just that; collecting single-use plastic bottles, turning them into usable yarn and manufacturing t-shirts, caps, bags and other items, managing the entire supply chain and now selling their products at Expo 2020 Dubai. It’s a small start, but one worthy of support and hopefully the forerunner of many more such local enterprises. But in the meantime, how can we, as a nation, kick-start our contribution to this valuable cause? As a major part of the global movement that is shifting to more sustainable and environmentally friendly products, we can, and should, help.

We don’t have to wait to take action. It is our collective responsibility to make a difference, and we can start today. Here are some tips on how you can be part of the solution by reducing your single-use plastic consumption now:

  • Always carry a reusable bag when shopping.
  • Replace your single-use water bottles with reusable ones and make sure they are BPA-free (a common chemical in plastic), stainless steel or made from glass.
  • Say NO to plastic straws and utensils when ordering food and eating out.
  • Take your own reusable tea/coffee mug to coffee shops for a refill.

If we change our habits, we can make a difference and protect our environment, and the time to start is now. We don’t need a drinking straw or coffee cup that we’ll only use once before throwing it away – because there is no ‘away’.

— rasha@khaleejtimes.com


More news from Emirati Wise