An inconvenient truth about our modern convenience

From plastic bags to takeaways, our throwaway lifestyle is not sustainable

BANDUNG, JAVA, INDONESIA - AUGUST 28: 20 years worth of plastic trash fished out of the Citarum river sits at a dumpsite now being monitored by the Indonesian Army on August 28, 2018 outside Bandung, Java, Indonesia. Despite its being named the worlds most polluted river by the World Bank, around 28 million people in Indonesia depend on the Citarum River for irrigation, electricity, as well as nearly 80 percent of the capital city's water supply. Based on reports, more than 20,000 tons of waste and 340,000 tons of wastewater are disposed of directly into the waterways of the third-biggest river in Java everyday from thousands of textile factories, killing nearly 60 percent of the rivers fish species and causing health problems for people living along the polluted river. In recent years, the Indonesian government has vowed to clean the Citarum river as studies from environmental groups had found that levels of lead in the Citarum River reached 1,000 times worse than the U.S. standards for drinking water, but the problem has persisted due to the lack of coordination, maintenance and enforcement. (Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images)

It’s easy to preach about plastic. Photographs of Indonesia’s Citarum River, where fishermen can no longer see the water for the choking crust of detritus, rightly give pause for thought. Closer to home, the sight of barges loaded with tonnes of waste dredged from Dubai Creek demonstrates the environmental consequences of a throwaway society.

Plastic itself is not the enemy. This multifunctional by-product of the fossil-fuel era has improved our lives in innumerable ways, from how we package and transport food and medicines to the creation of life-saving surgical components.

Used correctly, plastic is actually a green friend, giving us lightweight, fuel-efficient cars and aircraft and the ability to create the vast wind turbine blades now generating clean electricity around the world. Some research even suggests that replacing plastic packaging with more traditional materials would boost greenhouse gas emissions by 270 per cent.

But the mistake we have made is seeing convenient items such as bags and takeaway containers as easily disposable – and the news that each UAE resident produces around 2.7kg of food and packaging waste every day should serve as a wake-up call.

It is no surprise that convenience has been prioritised in fast-moving cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where few have time to pause and consider the bigger picture. But consider it we must if our cities are to have a sustainable future.

The humble shopping bag – minutes in use, centuries in landfill – has become totemic in the battle against avoidable plastic waste. Some shops in the UAE are experimenting with deterrent charging – a cost of just Dh0.25 for each plastic bag has seen their use fall by 75 per cent in Abu Dhabi’s five Waitrose stores – and there are encouraging signs this practice will spread. Meanwhile, recycling bins are becoming more commonplace on the streets of the UAE.

Such initiatives are to be applauded, but they are only the beginning. Each of us must consider our own impact on the fragile ecosystem on which we all depend, and act accordingly.

In so many ways plastic is our friend. But we are our own worst enemies if we continue to use it irresponsibly.