Grab your own bags and join the capital in helping the environment

Why UAE capital's new rules on plastic are to be celebrated

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 10, 2020. 
Lulu Hypermarket going plastic bag free and cleanliness-conscious to combat the Covid-19 outbreak.  A green checkout line at LuLu Hypermarket, Khalidiyah Mall. 
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Haneen Dajani
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"Life in plastic, it's fantastic," chime the lyrics of Aqua's seminal 1997 hit, Barbie Girl. And while there are an abundance of messages in that song that jar with controversy, in 2020, it is the implication that anything plastic is "fantastic" that may just rustle the most feathers.

Abu Dhabi this week announced that it will be gradually phasing out disposable plastics in the next two years, in a bid to protect the environment. To begin with, it will introduce a compulsory charge for ­disposable plastic bags, before banning them completely within two years, the plan outlines. A bottle-­recycling programme will also be ­introduced, alongside initiatives for other ­single-use plastic ­products, including cutlery, plates and straws.

“An estimated 13 million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans annually, altering vital habitats, endangering marine wildlife and impacting the food chain by releasing toxic chemical compounds,” said Dr Shaikha Al Dhaheri, secretary general of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, when announcing the new measures. “This issue is a grave concern for the preservation of our local species, posing a threat to our marine wildlife, sea turtles and seabirds, among others. Our policy responds to this global issue. If we do not take bold steps to contain the use of single-use plastics ... there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans and seas by 2050.”

Hopefully, people will notice just how easy it is to eliminate the material, particularly in its disposable form, when we adopt simple new habits.

I am absolutely delighted by the initiative. The roll-out of these kinds of measures is likely the only way that eschewing ­convenient single-use plastic products for their more environmentally friendly ­alternatives will become common practice among all.

For many, life in the UAE is incredibly convenient. People can order in from restaurants ­country-wide for breakfast, lunch and dinner, they order their ­weekly supermarket hauls to their door and online shopping is almost de rigueur. Sure, it’s convenient, but most of it comes wrapped in non-recyclable plastic.

In the past two years, I have tried to be very strict with my plastic use. I am definitely not perfect when it comes to my ­consumption, but disposable bottles are firmly on my banned list, I have reusable shopping bags in my car boot at all times and a keep-cup in my handbag (if I forget it, I forget about buying my coffee). But I do also buy toiletries in plastic bottles, order lunch in from time to time and chastise myself when garments bought in an online shop are ­delivered in individual bags.

For now, the city-wide plan to ban disposable plastic is limited to Abu Dhabi, but I hope the rest of the country follows the capital’s example. It had already begun, as Dubai International Airport and Dubai World Central Airport also both recently pledged to roll out a ban ­on single-use plastics from January this year.

In my native England, a plastic bag charge of 5p (25 fils) was introduced in 2015 and, by 2019, sales (and therefore use) of single-use bags had fallen by 90 per cent. As of July 2018, India, Germany, China, South Africa, Uganda and Denmark are among the 127 countries to have adopted some form of legislation to ­regulate plastic bags globally, be it a ban, charge or tax.

Hopefully, the main change people will notice is just how easy it is to eliminate the material, particularly in its disposable form, when we adopt simple new habits. If budgets don’t extend to buying new canvas bags for life, many will currently be housing a cupboard or draw full of plastic bags we’ve already collected. Keep a stash of them in your car or in handbags, and make them work a little harder than a single stint at the supermarket.

Selfishly, I will mourn the loss of a quiet eco-queue at Carrefour. That’s the till reserved for customers who have brought their own bags to pack, which never seems to be attended by a soul, while the others boast queues that have at least three or four piled-full trollies trailing behind each other. But if it means that in the next year we’ll see less plastic in the UAE’s seas, littered on the beach and out in the desert, it will be absolutely worth waiting in line.