In April of this year, the world was shaken by reports of a pregnant sperm whale that had washed up on the shores of Italy with 22 kilograms of plastic lining its stomach. Less than a month earlier, a Cuvier’s beaked whale — one that prefers to swim thousands of metres underwater — was found off the coast of the Philippines, with 40 kilograms of plastic inside it. Among the items found in either mammal were plastic plates, rice sacks and a variety of shopping bags — also known as single-use plastics.
It is shocking to realise the devastating impact of single-use plastics has now reached unprecedented depths. On the deepest dive ever made by a human inside a submarine, Victor Vescovo, a retired American naval officer and undersea explorer, earlier this year made a distressing discovery as he descended nearly 11,000 metres into the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench: the presence of plastic bags in the deepest point of the ocean, confirming that there is no part of the oceans and seas untouched by plastic pollution.
It is estimated that approximately 13 million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans annually, altering vital habitats, endangering marine life and impacting the food chain by releasing toxic chemical compounds. Along with overfishing and rising sea temperatures, they are one of the key environmental challenges of our time.
Closer to home, within the Arabian Gulf and wider UAE waters, we face similar and mounting challenges. The Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority, in a recent study, confirmed that of the 14 dead Green turtles found on the UAE’s east coast, 86 per cent had ingested marine debris, most of which were single-use plastics. The issue persists across our ecosystem, also indiscriminately affecting our camels and other grazing cattle in the terrestrial environment.
Beaches worldwide are being inundated with single-use plastic
The effects of single-use plastics are far-reaching, impacting a wide spectrum of species, including humans. And a large proportion of these plastics are totally unnecessary.
A survey of 376 beaches across 17 European countries identified 16 avoidable plastics that accounted for 355,671 items or 43 per cent of the total litter found on those beaches. These included plastic bags, cups and lids for beverages, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, food containers, cotton buds, plastic bottles and caps (beverage containers), crisp packets, sweet wrappers, cigarette butts, wet wipes and sanitary items, sticks for balloons, balloons, and microbeads — largely similar to the common single-use plastics that may also find their way in to Abu Dhabi’s water sources. Single-use plastics, when combined with discarded fishing gear, account for 70 per cent of marine debris found on beaches. If we can tackle these two key categories, we can go a long way to addressing the marine litter issue.
Consensus on the need for action
That plastics are a problem is now an undisputed point of view — and one that warrants immediate and collective action. The Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD), together with its partners, was driven to act further following a recent survey of UAE residents and citizens, where 98 per cent of respondents agreed we needed urgent action on the growing issue of single-use plastics and 99 per cent wished to see improvements in the way plastics are reused and recycled.
Following this feedback, and other studies conducted on the issue of single-use plastics in the local context, the Agency is actively developing a comprehensive single-use plastic policy, which is undergoing review, analysis and approval. The policy initiatives are geared to reducing the use of avoidable single-use plastics and promoting a culture of recycling and reuse in our society.
A united front against single-use plastics
By combining the efforts of the government, businesses and civic society, we can work together to systematically remove the threat plastics pose to our eco-system. The end goal is to create a socially and economically sustainable environment in Abu Dhabi, so everyone must do their part to limit the use of single-use plastics to protect our terrestrial and marine biodiversity, as well as public health.
The ‘Abu Dhabi Declaration on Cleaning the Rivers, Saving Our Oceans’, which was signed by local and global representatives from government, environment agencies, non-profit organisations and private sector companies at the World Ocean Summit in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, is a great example of meaningful collaboration towards this common purpose. The mobilisation of shared resources to combat marine pollution will go a long way in promoting action towards a cleaner and safer environment.
Many of the single-use plastics that show up most frequently, and seem to have the gravest effect on our environment, also happen to have sustainable and behavioural alternatives. By raising awareness of the effect these single-use plastics have and setting an example of the simple swaps, we believe we can make measurable progress in reducing our reliance on single-use plastics. For example, instead of using single-use plastic bags at the supermarket, bring your own reusable bags. Decline a straw when it is offered at a restaurant. Bring metal utensils when out for a picnic and wash them when you get home. These small changes can have a big impact!
That is not to say that single-use plastics with no alternative are hopeless. Rather, the government and private sectors are taking inspiration to innovate, work together and find actionable solutions for these items.
Greater collaboration with local producers, retailers and municipalities to improve the clean-up, collection, waste treatment and product design requirements for various single-use items will also be paramount to this endeavour.
A matter of survival
The fact remains that it took many decades and millions of people to steer an unhealthy dose of plastics towards unsuspecting animal species. In the same way, it will take millions of people, bound by a firm and collective commitment against harmful single-use plastics, to change the course of life and the environment as we know it. For the whales and turtles, or camels and birds, and even ourselves, every shopping bag not used or bottle recycled means the promise of cleaner, life-enriching oceans, many generations over.
Dr Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri is the acting secretary general of the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi.