The Problem of Plastic Pollution in the UAE and Possible Solutions

Plastic pollution is a serious global issue. The United Nations Environment programme highlights that each day, “the equivalent of 2,000 garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans, rivers, and lakes”. Annually, this translates into some 19-23 million tons of plastic waste leaks into aquatic ecosystems and pollutes lakes, rivers and seas. According to data collected by Greenpeace, the MENA region has the world’s highest per capita plastic footprint. On average, “residents in MENA contribute more than 6 kg of plastic waste to the surrounding marine environment every year, as per World Bank report estimates, published in May, 2023. Meanwhile, plastic pollution continues to be a real problem in the UAE due to it affluence, increase in population, and growing consumerism.

plastic trash on a beach in the UAE

The scale of the UAE’s plastic pollution problem has both pragmatic and lasting consequences.  According to an Environment Agency Abu Dhabi survey, it is estimated that the average person in the UAE uses around 500 single-use plastic bottles per year, which is far above the global average. The effect of plastic pollution on the UAE’s environment is deadly as plastic ends up deposited in the ocean and harms marine life and ecosystems across the wider Persian Gulf. In 2022, Dubai officials found out that nine in ten turtles found dead near the UAE coast had plastic in their stomachs. From both an ethical and environmental perspective, it seems imperative to curb plastic pollution, otherwise the UAE’s marine life is at risk.

Realizing the risks and challenge plastic pollution poses to the environment, the UAE government is working to promote sustainable solutions to address this issue. The COP28 climate change conference in Dubai, which gathered thousands of environmental scientists, policy makers and activists from across the globe, has put added significance to the measure taken by the UAE.

The Plastic Free Pacific conference, which focused on plastic pollution in the Asia-Pacific region and globally, presented at COP28 and advocated for a paradigm shift to reduce the problem of plastic pollution and find solutions. COP28 raised the alarm, however looking at the damage plastic doing, there is need for highlighting the relationship between the world’s emissions of fossil fuels, as plastic production in manufacturing and consumption of goods is a high carbon emission activity.

Primary plastic polymers are essential to the manufacture of plastics, and some 98% of them are derived from fossil fuels. The move from plastic pollution in the form of plastic bags, cutlery and utensils and towards sustainable materials only makes sense if fossil fuels are phased out. This is as phasing out fossil fuels leads to decarbonizing plastic production and even reducing overall plastic production and the quantity of plastic deposited in the UAE’s beaches and oceans.

The UAE government, big business and NGOs are working together as part of the Rebound Plastic Exchange (RPE) project. The RPE project encourages people and businesses to recycle plastic waste, thus diverting plastic from ending up in landfills, incinerated or deposited in the UAE’s oceans. Therefore, through the RPE initiative the UAE seeks to reduce the amount of marine debris, and damage to marine life and ecosystems by plastic pollution. The RPE initiative will reduce the overall plastic consumption and curb the throwaway culture, thereby helping to preserve marine life and vulnerable ecosystems like coral reefs. The government and the civil society should work together to implement proactive measures such as responsible waste management practices, enhanced recycling systems, strict regulations on waste disposal and raising waste awareness.

The UAE government ordinance which plans to charge for and phase out disposable plastic bags is a seen as a pragmatic step in the right direction. Such efforts coincide with the focus on the UAE Circular Economy Policy, to promote better waste management to protect fragile ecosystem of the country.


Plastic waste pose a serious threat to marine life in the Middle East

In addition, the UAE has implemented other policies to curb plastic pollution. Abu Dhabi implemented a ban on single use plastics back in 2022, and to date 450,000 single-use plastic bags have been saved in the area. Sarah Goldsmith, writing for Borg and Overstrom, highlights the role of public policy with the ‘Dubai Can’ initiative. This initiative solves the problem of plastic pollution in Dubai by encouraging residents to use re-fillable water bottles and installing water dispensers and stations across the city. In turn, this policy decreases plastic pollution as the use of re-fillable water battles reduces the demand for plastic water bottles, much of which ends up in landfills to the detriment of wildlife and people because of the carcinogenic effects of plastic pollution.

Furthermore, the UAE government, charities and civil society have taken active steps to curb plastic pollution. The UAE government has banned plastic bags effective since the beginning of 2024. The UAE government has proposed a ban on the importation of plastic cutlery, cups, Styrofoam and boxes effective January 1, 2026.  When the UAE government’s decisive action on plastic pollution is evaluated in line with policy recommendations by businesses and charities, it can be argued that the UAE is mobilizing to tackle plastic pollution and find solutions to the issue. Putting in context the risk to environment, animal and human life, controlling plastic pollution has to be part of public awareness. Legislations and laws need public support to be successful.

Besides the direct impact of environment, plastic pollution negatively impacts the health of people as plastic. The influential environmental think tank, the Geneva Environment Network, has conducted research into the relationship between high levels of plastic pollution and human health and wellbeing. Some of the scientifically proven health implications of plastic pollution include higher levels of cancer, changes in human hormone activity (endocrine disruption) and reproductive, growth and cognitive impairment. In turn, the harmful effects of plastic pollution on human health also impact the UAE and its residents due to high levels of plastic pollution in this region. This is especially important given the scale of plastic pollution in the UAE. In a 2019 report, the World Bank estimated that some, “11 billion single-use plastic items in the UAE are consumed annually, an average of 4.8kg per person”.

Therefore, the health effects of plastic pollution in the UAE, especially given the UAE’s large plastic footprint, are alarming. The trophic transfer of micro-plastics into human food chain is an established fact. Since one animal eats another, micro-plastics move through the food chain, thereby endangering the lives of many animals and eventually having consequences for human health. Researchers Dr. Marcus Eriksen, an environmental scientist, and Dr. Ulrich Wernery, a veterinary microbiologist, both work in the UAE and have discovered that 1% of camels died due to the ingestion of plastic that amassed over time in their digestive tracts. These plastics kill ill camels slowly by blocking their intestines, tearing at internal organs and creating conditions for bacterial infection.

camel eating plastic wastes

Large numbers of camels in the Middle East die every year due to plastic ingestion

Plastic pollution has a serious impact on marine life, and this links with the need to find alternatives to plastic. Derek Baldwin, writing for Gulf News in 2016, notes, “Small fish prefer to eat the plastic and gorge themselves on tiny plastic pieces smaller than five millimeters” and this leads to stunted growth and greatly increased mortality rates. This has practical outcomes, too, and “divers in the UAE confirm that plastics witnessed in recent dives in local waters pose deadly hazards for fish and sea turtles that ingest the pollution believing the debris to be food”.

Overall, plastic pollution is a serious global problem and one that also affects the UAE. The rise of a consumer society, international trade and a growing population have led to an increase in plastic pollution. However, recent years have seen UAE society move towards policies that effectively curb plastic pollution, like Rebound Plastic Exchange (RPE) and the ‘Dubai Can’ initiative help reduce plastic consumption and encourage reusing plastic items rather than a throwaway culture. This is very important given the UAE’s tourism based economy and overreliance on the hospitality sector, and so reducing plastic pollution is important to keep the tourist industry running.

As the UAE is popular with tourists due to its beaches, diving and marine activities, plastic pollution can harm tourism prospects and lead to falling revenue from tourism. However, it is only if further legislation is passed by the UAE government that plastic pollution can be controlled in the long-term, as when the UAE government shifts policy then residents, NGOs and civil society will respond.

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About Nibras Malik

Nibras Malik is a second year Politics & IR student at Cardiff University. Her poetry has been published in Acumen and the Trouvaille Review. Her latest work is forthcoming with The Scarlet Leaf Review. Many of her poems incorporate environmental themes. Furthermore, she has been long-listed for the Felix Dennis Young Poets Competition 2020- an environmentally focused poetry contest. In her spare time, she enjoys nature and watching documentaries.

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