With concern about the state of the environment high, many consumers are trying to lower their impact by taking reusable bags with them when they go shopping.
At least according to one study, however, it seems that not all shoppers are making the same effort to avoid buying more plastic bags.
Research in Al Ain found that at a supermarket described as being aimed at people on lower incomes, customers were more likely to reuse plastic bags, rather than to buy new ones. At a medium and a high-end supermarket, the opposite was true.
Nasser Al Farsi, of UAE University, the first author of the study, published in Sustainable Resources Management Journal, said that he was “surprised” by the results.
“The price range of supermarkets and the [behaviour of] frequent consumers from different socioeconomic levels showed a clear relationship,” he said.
Researchers spent two hours observing shoppers at each supermarket, recording the number of customers who brought plastic bags with them and the number who bought bags for their shopping.
At a Lulu supermarket, said to be aimed at the value end of the market, 145 customers brought their own plastic bags, while 120 – or 45 per cent – purchased plastic bags.
At two supermarkets said to have higher average prices, a clear majority bought bags instead of taking their own.
Just 75 customers at a Carrefour, described as medium in terms of price, brought reusable bags with them, compared with 230, or about 75 per cent, who purchased new bags.
Similarly, at a Spar supermarket, said to represent a more upmarket price point, 93 customers brought reusable bags while 220 shoppers, or 70 per cent, paid for new bags.
The fieldwork was carried out in March, a few days before Ramadan began, a busy time for shops when many people were stocking up with goods.
Reducing plastic waste
In June 2022, in an effort to reduce the amount of plastic waste, Abu Dhabi introduced a ban on the sale of single-use plastic bags and brought in a 50 fils charge for each reusable bag.
“These findings suggest a need for revisiting the awareness-raising initiatives and implemented programmes by Abu Dhabi's regulatory agency to better align with the objective of reducing single-use plastic consumption in areas characterised by greater financial means,” the study authors wrote.
According to figures released in June this year by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, 450,000 plastic bags have been taken out of circulation each day as a result of the policy introduced a year earlier.
The agency said there had been a 77 per cent reduction in the weight of plastic consumed.
Dubai has also clamped down on the use of plastic bags by requiring shops to charge consumers 25 fils for each one.
Mr Al Farsi said that a range of measures could be introduced to encourage consumers to cut down on their use of plastic bags.
“Comprehensive outreach programmes in educational institutions, fostering awareness and educating students about the detrimental impact of single-use plastics on the environment have proven effective in many parts of the world,” he said.
If further measures are taken to educate consumers, “awareness will spread over time”, said Mr Al Farsi, who was author of the study with Dr Mohammad Aljaradin.
New ban in 2024
The UAE’s drive to reduce the demand for plastic bags is set to go up a gear on January 1, 2024, when a nationwide ban is introduced.
Plastic bags cause considerable harm to the environment. As reported in The National, hundreds of camels have died in the UAE because their stomachs have been filled with polybezoars, which are large lumps of indigestible plastic material.
Sometimes weighing many tens of kilograms, the polybezoars are made from plastic bags, rope, plastic bottle lids and other items that the animals eat in the mistaken belief that they are food.
Tougher restrictions needed
Habiba Al Marashi, chairwoman of Emirates Environmental Group, said she was sure that the policies restricting the use of plastic bags were “reducing incredibly” the amount of single-use plastic that ended up in landfill sites.
“The people are ready; there’s a lot of awareness; there’s good commitment. But we need the support of the legal system,” she said.
Ms Al Marashi said that she would like to see tougher restrictions on the use of single-use cutlery in restaurants and other eating establishments.
When she has carried out beach clean-ups, Ms Al Marashi said that she has often found plastic cutlery, which is frequently broken and sticking up out of the sand.
“It’s very unsightly; it’s dangerous,” she said.
“When you go on the beach you want your children to run around and walk bare foot. I hope that [ban] will be a second step taken up.”
The authorities have indicated that they, too, are keen to cut the amount of single-use cutlery and related items consumed, with the importation of plastic cutlery, drinks cups, styrofoam and boxes to be banned from January 1, 2026.