Plastic bags and bottles are among the garbage that dots the surface of Dubai Creek. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: The tiny plastic straw in your drink will outlive you, your children’s children, and many generations combined. Worse, its particles can also turn up undigested in the fish your children’s children will eat not many years from now.

Plastic is made to last “forever”. Yet many of it has been designed to be single use only, feeding this throw-away culture we have and unnecessarily eating up a huge chunk of our landfills.

ALSO READ: Death by plastic: It's time we fight back

Over the past 50 years, global plastics production has increased almost 2,000 times from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014. This is expected to double again over the next two decades, according to a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation released in December 2017.

The same report said some 26 per cent of the total volume of plastics used are packaging. But not all of it gets collected for recycling — only 14 per cent.

The rest lie not rotting in landfills while eight million tonnes of leak into the ocean – equivalent to a garbage truck full of trash being dumped into the ocean every minute.

And if the world doesn’t act now, in 30 years, the oceans will have more plastics than fish by weight.

The worst part is, these plastics are ingested by marine animals and they make a comeback in many forms — through the fish we eat, the water system, rain and many more.

311 million 
tonnes global plastics production in 2014 compared to 15 million tonnes in 1964

“It’s in our food chain and this, I think, is the biggest alarm bell that we need to all become more conscious of. It’s not anymore about being an environmentalist. It’s not about an activist,” Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder and managing director of social enterprise Goumbook, told Gulf News.

“It’s just being responsible for the future generations and also for the ones who are living right now,” she added.

As far as straws are concerned, some 500 million straws are used every day in the US and are rarely recycled. The numbers are not available in the UAE.

“The simple thing is to just refuse straws. When you go have a drink somewhere, you can easily ask them not to give you a straw because no adult really needs a straw to drink,” Abella said.

450 plastic 
bottles of water are used by each UAE resident per year

The other single-use plastics are cutlery, food packaging, toiletries, even the cotton buds. But the most common on-the-go plastic in the UAE are the plastic water bottles, roughly 450 of which are used by each resident per year.

Abella admitted she, too, was a plastic bottle water user in the past. She would use up 20 bottles of water per week and would have to drive all the way to Dubai Municipality to get those bottles recycled. This inspired her to launch the Drop It campaign to make residents and companies aware of the effects of consuming bottled water not only to one’s health but also to the environment.

“Years ago, people in the UAE thought the water from the tap was not good. I think the problem was born there. What is the alternative? Bottled water,” Abella said.

26% of  
plastic globally is used in packaging, but only 14% is collected for recycling. Eight million tonnes of plastic waste leaks into the ocean

But the water Dubai Electricity and Water Authority supplies is safe to drink. If ever there is a problem, it could be in the pipes or tanks in the building where the water is stored.

Abella said this can be solved by just having their tap water tested in a lab and the appropriate filter installed so residents can start drinking filtered water straight from the tap.

“That’s what we do at home. I’ve done it now for the past 10 years and I’m ok. My babies are ok and that’s the water I have been giving them since they were born to mix their formula,” Abella said.

Also, ditching bottled water saves money.

“If tap water costs 0.02 fils for 1 litre, why do I pay for a 1-litre bottled water for least minimum Dh2? What am I paying for? I’m paying for the plastics, for the logistics, for the branding, not for the water. It’s up to 1,000 times over the price. It’s ridiculous.”

Refusing plastic bottled water and straws is just the first step. It can eventually become a lifestyle when residents get used to refusing single-use plastic, she said.

“Every little thing that you’re gonna try to go in that direction will help. All the companies that have switched with us don’t go back. It’s (dropping single-use plastic) completely doable.”

Are UAE residents aware of symbols found on plastic?

By Mary Achkhanian, Staff Reporter

Gulf News asks people about what the different symbols mean and how important it is to know them

Lili Beth, Filipino, works at American Business Council

“I see these symbols often but I’m not sure what they are. Symbols are always on the products we consume, but rarely do people understand what they mean. I believe there should be a text to explain them to people. I will try to educate myself more so I can at least be aware of which plastic is harmful to the environment and avoid buying it.”

Chris Petrov, American-Russian, management consulting

“I’ve seen the triangle symbols and I assume it has something to do with recycling but I’m not aware of what the numbers inside indicate. I think as responsible adults, we should be smart enough to know what to use, where and how and research in case we are not sure of something. Everyone should educate themselves because from what I’ve read, microwaving or freezing the wrong plastics will release toxins. Especially if we give those to kids, we need to be very vigilant.”

Vanja Dimitrijevic, Serbia, structural engineer

“I haven’t seen most of these symbols before except the triangles on bottles but I’m not sure what the numbers mean. To me they look like traffic symbols. If you want to recycle, I think knowing the symbols is necessary. Also, I think many people don’t recycle here. I will try to learn about these symbols.”

Hamad Malood, 28, Emirati, engineer

“In Abu Dhabi, it’s easy to drop the trash in designated green [recyclable] or black [non-recyclable] bins, placed around the city and I do follow that. I believe in segregating the waste at home [recyclable and non-recyclables] too. It should be a part of our daily life. I have seen people throw water bottles on streets; it is of concern. I even crush the bottle before dumping so that it can only be recycled.”

Abbas Mohammad, 31, Sudan, freelance photo journalist

“I avoid using plastic bags and instead go for recyclable bags and buy bigger water bottles instead of smaller ones. After finishing the water, I don’t throw or leave it at just anywhere but drop it into the designated recycling bin. It doesn’t take any effort, just a little conscious attitude towards saving the environment.”

Anant Jain, 30, India, software engineer

“Whenever I go to shopping, I carry my own fabric bag. When I buy any plastic item, I check whether it has the recycling symbol [three rotating arrows]. If it lacks that sign, I don’t buy it because it will stay in the environment for years and pollute it. I always carry a steel water bottle when I am in the office or outside.”


How we use plastic: Read this and be horrified

Facts and figures on the use of plastic around the world

Don’t clutch at straws

- Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws a day.

- California will soon make it illegal for restaurants to dole out unsolicited plastic straws.

- Seattle is banning plastic straws and utensils beginning July.

- Some California cities now prohibit restaurants from handing out plastic straws unless requested by a customer.

- South Africa, Costa Rica and Thailand are shifting to straws made of bamboo, wood or paper instead of plastic.

Royal support

England’s Queen has been inspired by Sir David Attenborough to join the campaign to reduce use of plastic, banning straws and bottles from the royal estates. Buckingham Palace outlined new waste plans and said there was a “strong desire to tackle the issue” at the highest levels of the royal household.

Britons use 7.7 billion single-use plastic water bottles a year and fewer than half are recycled, meaning that 16 million bottles are binned every day in the UK.

Britain’s leading supermarkets create more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year

A nightmarish world

Each year, more than 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally, and 10 per cent of them will end up in the sea.

It is estimated that there is now a 1:2 ratio of plastic to plankton and, left unchecked, plastic will outweigh fish by 2050.

Asia-Pacific region are littered with more than 11 billion pieces of plastic larger than 5 centimetres.

Quote of the plastic century

“I can buy gluten-free, fat-free, African food, Asian food, yet if I want to buy plastic-free it is impossible ... In this land of multiple choice, the one thing I can’t do is buy things without plastic.” — A UK consumer.

Ray of hope

The Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Ibiza and Menorca off the eastern coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea) plan to end the sale of all single-use consumer plastics by 2020 in what could be the most far-reaching legislation in Europe against the disposable products.

— Agencies

Don’t clutch at straws

Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws a day. Some California cities now prohibit restaurants from handing out plastic straws unless requested by a customer.  South Africa, Costa Rica and Thailand are shifting to straws made of bamboo, wood or paper instead of plastic.

A sperm whale was found off the coast of Murcia in southern Spain killed by gastric shock caused by ingesting 64lb (29kg) of plastic waste.The cause of its death prompted Murcia’s regional government to launch a campaign against plastic waste in the ocean.

Each year, more than 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced globally, and 10 per cent ends up in the sea. It is estimated that there is now a 1:2 ratio of plastic to plankton and, left unchecked, plastic will outweigh fish stocks by 2050. The Asia-Pacific region is littered with more than 11 billion pieces of plastic larger than five centimetres.

A guide to the seven plastic codes and symbols

1 Polytheylene Terepthalate (PET) 
PET is a vey common plastic used in drink bottles, rope, clothing and carpet bre. It is also used for water and so drink bottles, salad domes, biscuit trays, salad dressing and peanut butter containers. Commonly recycled, freezer safe, not microwavable

HDPE is a common white or coloured plastic used in milk containers and cleaning and chemical containers.
Commonly used daily items: Milk bottles, freezer bags, dip tubs, crinkly shopping bags, ice cream containers, juice bottles, shampoo, chemical and detergent bottles.

3 Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC is a hard and rigid plastic used in non-food bottles, piping, fencing and windows. Commonly used daily items: Cosmetic containers, commercial cling wrap. Sometimes recycled, not freezer safe and not microwavable

4 Low Density Polythylene (LDPE)
LDPE is a hard but still flexible used in things like bottle caps and yoghurt containers.  Commonly used daily items: Squeeze bottles, cling wrap, shrink wrap, rubbish or garbage bags. Sometimes recycled, not freezer safe and not microwavable.

5 Polypropelene (PP)
A so and pliable plastic used in disposable plastic items such as coffee cups, packing foam, cutlery. Commonly used daily items: Microwave dishes, ice cream tubs, potato chip bags, and dip tubs. Not usually recycled, not freezer safe, microwaveable.

6 Polystyrene (PS)
A so and pliable plastic used in disposable plastic items such as co‹ee cups, packing foam, cutlery. Commonly used daily items: CD cases, water station cups, plastic cutlery, imitation “crystal glassware”, video cases. Not usually recycled, freezer safe and not microwaveable.

6 Foamed polystyrene (EPS)
For hot drink cups, hamburger takeaway clamshells, foamed meat trays, protective packaging for
fragile items.

7 All other plastics
The 7th code is for all other plastics including CDs, baby bottles, water cooler bottles, flexible lms and multi-material packaging. Not usually recycled, not freezer safe, not microwaveable.

Indicates this plastic is
safe for contact with food.

Indicates this plastic is
safe for microwave.

Indicates this plastic is
safe for use in freezer.

Indicates this plastic is safe
for dishwasher top rack.

BPA FREE: BPA stands for bisphenol A. BPA is an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1960s. BPA is found in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastics are o en used in containers that store food and beverages, such as water bottles.

- Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation 


We produce 60,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide to produce bottled water annually in the UAE.
80% of water bottles are not recycled.
1,000 years: Time it takes for plastic water bottles to degrade.
800 million: Units of vottled water that the UAE consumes every year.
Over 150 million tonnes: Amount of plastic in the ocean today.
95% of plastic packaging material value, equivalent to $80–$120 billion annually, is lost to the economy once single-use plastic is disposed
Globally, close to half of PET is not collected for recycling, and only 7% is recycled bottle-to-bottle.

Goumbook members’ success
1,220 employees from member-companies have become plastic-free

Accumulated savings:
327,431 units of 500ml-bottles
8,354 units of 5-gallon bottles
44.63 tonnes of CO2 emissions

- Source: Drop It campaign by Goumbook; The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics and Catalysing Action by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation