Plastic waste is leaking into the environment at an alarming rate. In a 2018 report published by the United Nations, “Single Use-Plastics — A Roadmap for Sustainability”, it states that 400 million tons of plastics are produced every year, 36 per cent of which is plastic packaging intended for a single use, with an estimated eight million tonnes entering the world’s oceans.
The explosion, since the 1950s, of disposable plastic packaging designed for a single use is driving the growing volumes of plastics entering our environment in an uncontrolled way. This is exacerbated by poor waste collection and disposal facilities that have not managed to keep pace with the growth in plastic waste, and more generally by bad habits people have of littering, throwing their waste on the ground or at sea.
The visible part of the problem makes for dramatic images in the media such as beaches covered in plastic debris, small islands overwhelmed and some of our iconic species that have died as a result of digesting or getting tangles in discarded plastics. There is another part of the problem, less visible but equally important, which is micro-plastics. Once discarded, some plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces which are almost invisible to the naked eye, but that can get into the food chain.
One of the benefits of plastic as a material is its durability, but this turns into a problem when the plastic becomes debris in the ocean with plastic bags and styrofoam containers taking up to 1,000 years to decompose. According to the United Nations, more than 600 marine species are harmed by marine litter and 15 per cent of species affected by ingestion or entanglement in marine debris are endangered.
To tackle this issue a number of counties have introduced a charge for plastic bags or banning them altogether. In England, for example, a charge equivalent to 25 fils has resulted in an 85 per cent reduction in plastic bags used by customers and a similar scheme in Ireland has resulted in a 90 per cent reduction. Italy, Morocco and Kenya are among countries that have banned plastic bags, with some countries imposing a prison sentence for those that flout the law. The European Union has gone further by proposing new rules, which include an outright ban on single-use plastics, such as cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws and drink stirrers, and has introduced a requirement for member states to increase the collection plastic bottles to 90 per cent by 2025.
Developing a plan
In the UAE, we have not been immune to this problem and we see plastic waste on our beaches, in the sea and in the desert on a daily basis. The Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD) has organised clean-ups, as have others, as a temporary and localised solution. But to really solve the problem we need to stop plastics from getting in the environment in the first place, which means getting our communities to rethinking how they use and dispose of plastics.
To do this will require partnership working and collaboration between governments, the private sector and NGOs. EAD, working with the Emirates Wildlife Society/WWF is in the process of building this partnership and developing a plan to tackle plastic pollution. We are clear about our goals:
n To stop plastics from getting into the environment in an uncontrolled way where they cause harm.
n To eliminate the use of avoidable plastics such as the multiple layers of packaging and over-use of plastic bags, the plastic cutlery that never gets used, straws — all of which represent wasted resources and have the potential to get into the environment.
n To segregate and recycle as much plastic as is economically feasible — remanufacturing it into something useful.
We also need to better understand what is happening to plastics in our environment, and in particular the marine environment, and where it is coming from. This year, EAD will be conducting high-level research, supported by sampling and testing, to give us an understanding of the size of the plastics and micro-plastics issue in the Gulf and the source of the material present. In March 2019, the Government of Abu Dhabi will host the World Oceans Summit, the Economist’s flagship conference, at which we aim to gain regional support for action to reduce plastics in the Arabian Gulf and our oceans.
The bottom line is that as humans, we interact with and rely on the environment for all our basic needs just like all other species on the planet. However, as the dominant species, we have additional responsibilities to take care of the only home we have, for our sake and for the sake of other species. The actions we need to take to keep plastics out of the environment are simple such as putting waste in an appropriate bin. The difficult part is to get everyone to take the simple actions as a matter of routine — every day.
Razan Al Mubarak is secretary-general of the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi.