The four Rs (reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle) of waste management have not yet entered the everyday discourse of Oman, but does this mean that they are not part of everyday life in Oman? We think the people of Oman can help us to answer this question. To get a first-hand understanding of the degree of waste management awareness in Oman, a pilot study was designed, a questionnaire was prepared, and in a series of interviews with individual Omanis we recorded their responses.
Insights into the Survey
The questionnaire covered household consumption habits, food waste and other household waste, and awareness of the four Rs, with particular attention to recycling. The main focus of the survey was on food waste. Of the 21 questions, fifteen were multiple-choice, with write-in options for any needed explanation. There were six open-ended questions, inviting respondents to give their opinion or share something of their experiences and knowledge of the topic.
The respondents were all adult Omani nationals, ranging in age from their early twenties to their late fifties. All respondents reside in Muscat, but the majority were originally from other provinces and maintained a strong connection with their home village or town. The respondents represented various occupations such as: university student, homemaker, bank clerk, teacher, taxi driver and police officer. The interviews were carried out in March and April 2016.
Who take care of grocery shopping?
60 percent of respondents said that in their household, the wife usually took care of the grocery shopping. 20 percent said the husband had that responsibility, and another 20 percent said that both husband and wife regularly did the grocery shopping together. When asked how often (monthly, weekly, daily, or not regularly) the grocery shopping was done in their households, most respondents said that it depended on the commodity. Dry goods such as rice, pulses, flour, sugar, and coffee were purchased in larger quantities on a monthly basis, while most households shopped for fruits, vegetables, milk and bread at least once a week.
Do you prefer to buy food in bulk or pre-packaged?
In response to this question: Do you prefer to buy food in bulk (by the gram/kilogram) or pre-packaged? they answered patiently (but clearly some thought it was a silly question) that of course “it depends on the type of food.” Some foods were fresher and cheaper in bulk, whereas other foods were cleaner and free of impurities when packaged at the factory. Eighty percent of respondents stated that they shopped at a supermarket for most of their household groceries; 50 percent of them said that they regularly shopped at an outdoor market (such as a fish or vegetable market) for certain commodities. No respondents said that they relied on small shops for their grocery shopping.
A few of the middle-aged respondents recalled that when they were children, there was not much choice when one went to the market. Their parents could buy staples such as rice, flour, tea, coffee and sugar, and a few varieties of greens and fruits. Nowadays, one of them remarked, shopping at the supermarket they had trouble deciding between the many processed and packaged products on offer, such as cheeses, yoghurts, juices, sweets, and imported fresh and frozen meats and other produce.
Seventy percent of those surveyed said they used the free ‘disposable’ plastic bags dispensed by the shops, and only 30 percent took their own reusable bag or other reusable receptacle to do their shopping. However, those who did go to the outdoor markets said they often brought their own cartons or plastic vegetable crates in order to carry the produce home in their cars. When asked what their parents or grandparents had used for their shopping, 40 percent said “a basket” and 60 percent said “a box” (meaning either a vegetable crate or a carton). Apparently plastic bags were not an option in “the old days.”
Do you find that your household ends up throwing out food?
The interviewer mentioned to each respondent the statistics that came from the 2012 Sultan Qaboos University study on household food waste in Oman, and posed this question: Do you find that your household/family ends up throwing out food that was not eaten before it spoiled? The responses were somewhat unexpected. Only 30 percent reported that their household regularly had to throw away uneaten food. The other 70 percent said that when there was any food left over from a family meal or a child’s dish, it was fed to animals such as chickens and goats. Several female respondents mentioned that in general they only prepared enough food to feed their own family and perhaps to send a plateful of it to a neighbour.
The exception to this pattern was when they had guests, in which case it was compulsory to prepare greater quantities than usual. Respondents who brought up the subject of hosting and special occasions explained that in Omani culture it was considered a sign of respect for their guests and a point of honour for their family if they served more food than the guests could actually eat. Therefore, weddings, the arrival of a newborn, the two Eids and other celebrations could be expected to result in substantial quantities of wasted food. However, according to several respondents, “back in the village” this is not what happened. Tribal and local municipal regulations actually prohibited the disposal of large quantities of food waste at dumpsites.
The main reason given was that leaving leftover food outside was “bad for the livestock.” That is, a camel will naturally eat as much food as it finds, and if discarded food such as rice is left out in the open, the camel will continue to eat until it gets sick. This surprising claim about camels eating cooked rice seems to be supported by scientific research: “Yagil (1990) observed that camels selected feed which is highly digestible, especially rich in easily fermentable carbohydrates and having high water contents [sic].” Cooked rice fits all three criteria.
Furthermore, camels are proficient at “eating in excess of their immediate needs and storing the extra as fat in the hump.” So out of necessity to protect the health of the camels, it was forbidden to scatter uneaten food. Instead, whoever hosted an event at which quantities of excess food remained would take the food immediately to any nearby encampment of migrant workers and distribute it there. Alternatively, the hosts would distribute it to needy families in their community. If it was not possible to donate the leftover food to others, it was dried in the sun to preserve it and then fed in small quantities to livestock such as goats and chickens.
Comparison between 'Now' and 'Then'
When asked to compare the level of household food waste generated today and when they were children, there was unanimous agreement among respondents that either no or little food was ever wasted “back then,” whereas modern-day urban living has made it harder to avoid wasting food. The respondent above-mentioned who had remarked on the great variety of options available in supermarkets posited that this meant that people ended up buying more than they could practically consume. Another factor suggested by respondents as leading to increased food waste is simply living in a big city where no one notices what you throw in your rubbish bin: back in the village or small town, neighbours would know exactly what your family has tossed into the local dump, so there was a sort of peer pressure against food waste.
In a big city no one notices what you throw in your rubbish bin
What type of drinking water does your household consume?
As a follow-on to consumption patterns for food, the survey asked what type of drinking water each household consumed. In most parts of Oman, it is assumed that tap water is not safe for drinking. Eighty percent of respondents said they subscribed to a commercial service for drinking water. Of those, two-thirds purchased refillable water dispensers (such as Salsabeel, a local brand), usually delivered to their homes as part of the service; one-third bought water from the ubiquitous blue tanker trucks that also deliver to residences in Muscat and other cities and towns. No households in the survey used non-refillable plastic water bottles (such as Masafi or Oasis brand) as their primary source of drinking water, but thirty percent said they used them on occasion, especially when travelling by road.
Interviewees were asked which of these components (food, plastic packaging/bags, paper/cardboard, plastic bottles or “other”) made up most of the refuse found in their own household rubbish bins. Half of them asserted it was plastic packaging or plastic bags, one-third believed it to be paper and/or cardboard, and the remaining respondents said it was plastic bottles (such as containers for juice, water and household disinfectants).
Are you aware of any local programme for recycling?
The questions about plastic water bottles and what types of material were trashed led to this next query: Are you aware of any local programme for recycling? Only twenty percent of respondents answered “Yes,” and of those, none were aware of any active recycling programme in their neighbourhood or workplace. One respondent thought that the 2013 Dar al Atta’a clothing recycling initiative was still ongoing, because the bins for paper and cardboard recycling set up by the same charity around Muscat in 2015 looked almost identical to those previous bins for clothing.
A few respondents had heard that plastic bottles were being collected somewhere in the city, but had no idea where. Several respondents mentioned that in the past, they used to see individuals salvaging empty aluminium soft drink cans from municipal rubbish bins near streets and in public parks. A couple of these respondents noted that the remuneration price for those used cans had fallen several years ago, and they believed this to be the reason this type of recycling seemed to have disappeared.
Do you recycle any of these items?
The follow-on question was: Do you recycle any of these items? paper/cardboard, plastic bottles, aluminium/metal, glass, clothing or “other”. The category “other” was intended to catch possible but expectedly rare responses such as batteries, electronics and printer ink cartridges. One would think that this follow-up question would have received “Not applicable” as a response from all respondents. However, a few respondents mentioned that they “recycled” some of their own household’s waste, in that they re-used or repurposed items such as cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, glass jars and old tee shirts. Most (70 percent) said that they regularly donated used clothing to poor families or (especially with children’s clothing) gave them to relatives.
This question spurred a couple of female respondents to comment on clothing “waste” as a problem “particular to Omanis,” as they saw it. They mentioned that Omanis who wear traditional clothing must have most of their clothes tailor made, and that—particularly for women’s wear—the fashions changed quickly from season to season. As a result, many women and girls felt they could not be seen wearing last season’s dresses and scarves, and had to buy the latest styles. One respondent further remarked that the cycle of conspicuous consumption was affecting Omani society at many levels, and was even more problematic when it involved costly commodities such as mobile phones, especially on the part of the youth, who junked their “old” phones for the latest models with astonishing frequency.
What factors influenced their beliefs and attitudes about wasting food or throwing away useful items?
Interviewees were asked what factors influenced their beliefs and attitudes about wasting food or throwing away useful items. Sixty percent said that religion (Islam) played the greatest role in this. Thirty percent said family upbringing was the main influence and another ten percent attributed their attitudes to their culture. Education and tradition were mentioned by the majority of respondents as the secondary factors.
What do you think that people in Oman can do to help reduce the amount of waste they are making?
The final question in the survey was: What do you think that people in Oman can do to help reduce the amount of waste they are making? This open-ended question elicited a variety of responses: “Be responsible for yourself and your family”; “don’t buy more than you need”; “donate extra food and clothing instead of throwing it away”; and “re-use items in your home and at your farm.”
Note: This is the second article in our special series on 'Waste Management in Oman'. The first part can be read at this link.
The third and final part analyses the results of the survey and makes a wide range of recommendations to improve the waste management situation in Oman.