Single-use plastic bags are one of the most objectionable types of litter in urban areas. The sheer volume of plastic waste generated coupled with energy and material resources required for production, as well as emissions resulting from these processes paint a grim picture of the environmental havoc created by plastic bags. Single-use plastic bags are a huge threat to the environment as an estimated 1 trillion such bags are consumed worldwide every year. In the United Arab Emirates alone, nearly 12 billion plastic bags are used annually.
Single-use plastic bags are notorious for their interference in natural ecosystems and for causing the death of aquatic organisms, animals and birds. In 2006, The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean and upto 80 percent of marine debris worldwide is plastic which are responsible for the death of a more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year from starvation, choking or entanglement. Infact, there is a huge floating dump in the Pacific Ocean called the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" which is hundreds of miles wide and consists mostly of plastic debris caught in the ocean's currents.
Plastic bags are mistakenly ingested by animals, like cows and camels, clogging their intestines which results in death by starvation. In addition, plastic bags clog urban drainage systems and contribute to flooding, as witnessed in Mumbai, Dhaka and Manila in recent decades. Moreover, toxic chemicals from single-use bags can enter the food chain when they are ingested by animals and birds.
Unfortunately only a small percentage of these bags are recycled each year, and most float about the landscape and create a tremendous expense in clean-up costs. Several countries, regions, and cities have enacted legislation to ban or severely reduce the use of disposable plastic shopping bags. Plastic bags litter serves as a floating transportation agent that enables alien species to move to new parts of the world thus threatening biodiversity.
The hazards of single-use plastic bag can be mitigated by raising environmental awareness among communities. Many municipalities in the Gulf region are targeting shopping malls and grocery stores to reduce dependence on single-use plastic bags. Environmental education at workplaces, schools and residential areas is a vital tool in the fight against plastic bags. Empowering people to take proactive actions and encouraging them to be a part of the solution can also be helpful in reducing the reliance on single-use plastic bags.
Municipalities can make use of 5Rs of waste management – Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover – to encourage safe disposal of plastic bags which may be facilitated by mass deployment of plastic bag collection systems and recycling facilities at strategic locations. Some of the alternatives are cloth-based bags, such as jute and cotton, which biodegradable as well as reusable. Infact, the range of durable fabric shopping bags is growing each year in the Western countries, including those that can be conveniently folded up into a pocket.
The introduction of ‘plastic bags tax’ can also be a handy weapon in restricting use of single-use plastic bags in the Middle East. For example, Ireland introduced a plastic bag charge called PlasTax ten years ago which has virtually eliminated plastic bags in the country.
The Middle East region has been slow in gearing up to the challenges posed by single-use plastic bags, though governments have been trying to raise public awareness aimed at behavioral change. The Ministry of Environment and Water in UAE launched an initiative called “UAE free of plastic bags” in 2009 to maintain the health of the natural habitat and enhance the environmental standards of the state. The Dubai Municipality has also launched an ambitious “No to Plastic Bags” campaign to slash 500 million plastic bags. There are similar efforts, but small-scale, efforts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait to encourage clean-up campaigns in seas, deserts and citites. In Egypt, the Red Sea (Hurghada) is the first plastic bag free governorate having introduced a ban in 2009 which generated employment opportunities for women who have been charged with creating cloth bags in the place of plastic bags.
About the Authors
Eaman Abdullah Aman is MRLS graduate in Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy with a specialization certificate in Energy Law and Policy from Denver University, USA. Her expertise encompasses international petroleum transactions, petroleum contracts and agreements, international petroleum investment operations, energy policy and economics of natural resources law and policy. She has rich knowledge on issues related to climate change mitigation, environmental law and policy, environmental ethics, energy security, sustainable development etc.
Salman Zafar is the Founder of EcoMENA and a renowned expert in waste management, renewable energy, environment protection and sustainability. He is widely acknowledged as an authority on environment and sustainability sector in the Middle East and proactively engaged in creating mass awareness on clean energy, environment and sustainability through his websites, blogs, articles and projects. Salman can be contacted on email@example.com.