Turning the tide: UAE businesses stamp out single-use plastic

Public opinion now expects firms to behave more responsibly

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On every dive off the UAE coast, Kathleen Russell finds a medley of plastic flotsam including bottles, lost flip flops, discarded tooth brushes and severed fishing lines.

What worries her most, however, is not the debris she can see but the microplastics - swallowed by fish and seabirds - that she cannot.

“Sometimes we’ll pick up 10 pieces and sometimes we pick up three pieces but when you look you’ll always find something,” said Ms Russell, the owner of Al Mahara Diving Center in Abu Dhabi.

“If you really look closely it’s already embedded among the marine environment, in the coral.

“It’s the disintegrated stuff, that’s what we have to worry about as divers and as a community.”

We have a very short window to act because we don't want to end up in a situation where we have an ocean filled with plastic.

Stark underwater scenes have spurred a growing public demand for a national ban on single-use plastics.

On Monday, Dubai Airports became the country’s latest ally in the fight against the country’s escalating problem.

The operator, which manages Dubai International Airport and Al Maktoum International Airport, promised to ban single-use plastics items such as cutlery and shopping bags, in consumer spaces from January 1, 2020.

To date, the battle against single-use plastics has been led by small businesses, offices and environmental groups.

A survey this year by the Ministry of Climate Change and the Environmental Agency-Abu Dhabi found 98 per cent of the population believed urgent action was needed to curb single-use plastic consumption.

“If we do nothing, there will be more plastic mass than fish in the ocean,” said Humaid Abdulla Kanji, an environmental economist at the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi.

“This needs to change. We don’t have much time and we need to steer the public away from single-use to reusable.

"We have a very short window to act because we don’t want to end up in a situation where we have an ocean filled with plastic.”

According to the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, the average UAE resident uses 1,182 plastic bags per year.

That amounts to more than three bags a day, and nearly triple the global average. Added to this national waste is the almost three billion plastic bottles the country uses per year.

“That’s already a very high figure and we think this needs to drop as soon as possible,” said Mr Kanji.

“We have a large potential to reduce that amount and it’s really good to see Dubai Airports taking that step.”

The 2019 survey polled nearly 2,700 people from all seven emirates. The majority of respondents said they were willing to pay a levy to reduce single-use plastic consumption.

Internationally, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged Canada will ban single-use plastics as early as 2021 if he is re-elected. The Canadian proposal mirrors a plan announced by the European Union in March that would ban items including plastic straws, bags, cups and cotton swabs.

The legislation follows China’s decision to limit imports of EU waste.

A YouGov survey from November 2018, found half of respondents wanted an outright ban on common single-use plastics including coffee cups, foam egg boxes, drinking straws, wet wipes and plastic bags

“With more opportunities for corporate sustainability, consumers are now demanding change,” said Ian Ohan, the founder and chief executive of Freedom Pizza, a restaurant in the UAE.

“We are still having to import a lot of eco-friendly packaging and cutlery but fortunately we are large enough that it starts to make economic sense. The ideal scenario is to be using locally recycled materials.”

More than 50 companies signed up to a campaign last year by Freedom Pizza and Azraq, a non-profit marine conservation organisation, to end plastic straw use.

On Wednesday, Mr Ohan said he would still like to see improvements to recycling infrastructure for consumers.

To that end, his company is working with companies who supply home composting kits so that people can properly dispose of compostable pizza boxes.

Corporate initiatives have contributed to changing attitudes, said Natalie Banks, the managing director of Azraq.

This year, the non-profit turned its attention to the harm to marine life caused by balloon releases and cigarette butts.

A single-use plastic policy for Abu Dhabi emirate is currently under review by the government and agencies in all seven emirates are working with the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment on a national plastics strategy.

“We are hopeful that this [strategy] will further reduce the impacts of single-use plastic in the region,” said Ms Banks.

Al Mahara Diving Centre will run an underwater cleanup at Mina Zayed this Saturday, June 13, at 8.30am. To register please visit https://divemahara.com/ .