Plastics are an inseparable part of modern society. However, their safe disposal is a big and highly challenging issue. A typical UAE resident uses 450 plastic water bottles on an average in a single year1. With the equivalent of 43 gallons on an average per person in 2011, the United Arab Emirates had the fourth-highest level of bottled water consumption in the world.
A whopping 11 billion plastic bags are used annually, according to statistics from UAE’s Ministry of Environment and Water. This goes on to add up to an annual overall waste of 912.5 kilogram per capita2, 3, and 4. These statistics reflect on the extent of use of plastic bags and water bottles in UAE and the consequent generation of plastic waste.
Plastics are used globally in industries like packaging, construction and medical equipment among others. This is because plastics are durable, water-proof, lightweight and versatile. However, some countries use them more than others due to certain socio-economic factors. UAE has witnessed rapid growth in the last decade or so. This has been in terms of population as well as GDP per capita, both of which have more than doubled in this period5.
The above two factors result in higher consumer spending. Moreover, the latter translates to greater importance, given to ‘convenience and hygienic shopping’ resulting in higher demand for plastics in packaging and shopping.
All this consequently leads to increased waste generation. From the supply side also, plastic manufacture (for all purposes including packaging) is a booming industry in UAE and rest of Gulf, one factor for it being abundance of petrochemicals, the raw material for plastics, in this region6.
Had it not been for the damage caused by plastic waste to environment and human health, trend of increasing use of plastics would have been acceptable. However, since waste is being generated at a dangerous rate and its management has become a critical challenge, a reality-check is called for.
Plastics can take as much as thousands of years to degrade. Till then, they take precious space in landfills, are eaten up by unsuspecting animals & birds leading to their death or end up in sea, accumulated in certain areas called ‘gyres’.
While in landfills, plastics emit harmful greenhouse gases, which lead to ‘global warming’. This is apart from plastic waste being an eye-sore and civic menace. When in open areas, animals ingest plastic bags, mistaking them for food. Estimates suggest that 50 percent of the camels that die every year in the UAE die from ingesting them which can lead to massive calcified balls of plastic in the stomachs that eventually kill the animals.
The ultimate destination of this waste is ocean. Plastics and Styrofoam (used in disposable cups and plates) comprise 90% of the floating debris in oceans. Marine animals and birds are killed by entanglement or ingestion7, 8, 9 and 10. Further, plastic manufacture is an input-intensive process, using significant amounts of oil, water and power.
Realizing the flip-side of high use of plastics, UAE has initiated definitive corrective measures. The Ministry of Environment and Water has reported that it will ban circulation and marketing of non-biodegradable plastic products in UAE from early next year11. In that direction, Dubai Municipality have launched a “Say No to Plastic Bags” campaign starting May 2013 targeting a 20 per cent reduction in the estimated 2.9 billion plastic bags used annually in the emirate, by the end of this year. This is to be done by means of creating consumer-awareness and offering reusable and recyclable alternatives like jute and paper bags in major supermarkets12.
In Sharjah, a private company, in partnership with Sharjah Municipality, is working towards a 100% landfill diversion target set for the Emirate of Sharjah by the end of the first quarter of 201513. This is being done through development of waste management infrastructure on one hand and community education of the importance of environment principle of 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
The Government of Abu Dhabi has established ‘The Center for Waste Management’ (CWM) to control and coordinate all activities related to sustainable waste management. Several non-government organisations as well as community groups are also working towards the goal of better plastic waste management in UAE.
(4) Bee’ah. (2010). Sustainability Report 2010. Retrieved May 4, 2013, from Bee’ah-UAE: http://www.beeah-uae.com/sites/default/files/Beeah_Sustainability%20Report%202010%20(LR).pdf
(5) National Bureau of Statistics UAE. (n.d.). UAE in figures – 2001 and 2009.
(6) Yousef, D. (2011, December 18). Petrol to plastics: Bagging the future. Retrieved May 8, 2013, from GulfNews: http://gulfnews.com/business/general/petrol-to-plastics-bagging-the-future-1.952591
(8) MoEW. (2013). Retrieved May 8, 2013, from UAE Ministry of Environment & Water: http://www.moew.gov.ae/portal/en/search.aspx
(9) California Coastal Commission. (2012, June 20). Public Education Program. Retrieved May 8, 2013, from http://www.coastal.ca.gov/publiced/marinedebris.html
(10) Science for Environment Policy. (2011, November). Plastic Waste: Ecological and Human Health Impacts. Retrieved May 8, 2013, from http://ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/research/newsalert/pdf/IR1.pdf
(11) Salma, S. (2013, March 3). UAE bans non-biodegradable plastic products. Retrieved May 9, 2013, from GulfNews: http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/environment/uae-bans-non-biodegradable-plastic-products-1.1153432
(12) Baldwin, D. (2013, April 23). Dubai Municipality launches campaign to slash 500m plastic bags. Retrieved May 8, 2013, from GulfNews: http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/environment/dubai-municipality-launches-campaign-to-slash-500m-plastic-bags-1.1174280