Just over a year ago, the UAE's pledge to reach net zero by 2050 was a first for the Mena region. In line with that commitment, residents of the Emirates can expect more bold moves ahead.
The most recent of these is an announcement made this week banning, by this time next year, all single-use plastic bags. From 2026, the import of virtually all everyday single-use plastic items – from cutlery to even cigarette butts – will be prohibited.
To be clear, a phase-out of single-use plastics does not mean that other, more durable and useful plastics in the country are disappearing. Plastic bags made out of recycled material, for instance, will still be available. As will countless other items that are a part of our lives – chairs, tables, pens or car parts, for example.
But it cannot be denied that single-use plastics play too large a role in marine pollution and contribute heavily to landfills. Images of sea turtles tangled up in polythene bags have in recent years become a global visual shorthand for the damage plastics can inflict on marine life. Last year, as retailers began introducing a small, government-mandated cost for shopping bags, Dubai officials had said that nine in 10 turtles and five in 10 camels that were found dead had plastic in their stomachs. Limiting such harm ought to be an urgent priority for everyone.
Later this year, the UAE will host the Cop28 UN climate summit. In the build up to it, conversations such as those around the end of single-use plastic are especially relevant and necessary. The new regulation also highlights the important work of environment agencies in the country and the progress that has been made in related areas concerning the environment – be it in the significant reduction of single-use plastics in Abu Dhabi already, or spreading awareness about the importance of waste segregation and recycling, or the focus on renewables, or highlighting the possible replacements for single-use plastics. The uncomfortable and often unpopular truth is also that not all replacements for single-use plastic are sustainable, and plastics are not the only source of environmental damage.
For consumers, there will be time to readjust lifestyles. Several UAE residents may already be in the habit, for example, of carrying cloth or other reusable bags for trips to the supermarket. Across the UAE, many supermarkets and and restaurants are already conscious of the damage that disposable plastics cause to the planet and increasingly offer customers alternatives. Greater adoption of these alternatives will hopefully spur the creation of new businesses responsible for producing them at scale.
Previously, regulations on plastics were largely the domain of individual emirates. The new single-use plastic ban is notable for being a country-wide initiative, helping to encourage a national standard and vision for environmental protection. Most of the changes it will bring to the average resident's daily life will be minor – after all, few people pay attention to what kind of cutlery comes with their take-away order – but the overall impact, on consumer habits, the business landscape and the environment alike, will be hard to overestimate.