Egypt's Red Sea region to ban single use plastic

The measure is aimed at protecting the coast's fragile marine ecosystem

In this June 8, 2018 photo, divers collect plastic and other debris during a cleanup organized by Camel Dive Club, at a dive site off the coast of the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, in Southern Sinai, Egypt. An Egyptian official says his Red Sea province will impose a ban on disposable plastics, prohibiting everything from single use straws to plastic bags in an effort to fight plastic pollution. Ahmed Abdallah, governor of Hurghada province, said late on Tuesday, April, 2, 2019, that the ban will go into effect from June. (AP Photo/Thomas Hartwell,)
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If Egypt's environmental protection track record is anything to go by, then this week's decision by a provincial governor to ban almost all single-use plastic products in his Red Sea region is revolutionary, both in its scope and in the challenge it poses to a culture of apathy and environmental negligence.

The ban, to go into effect in June, takes on added significance because it affects a part of Egypt that's home to some of its most popular beach and water sports resorts, which dot the Red Sea's western coastline in mainland Egypt.

The ban, inspired by a memorandum presented by a voluntary environmental group on the dangers of plastic to humans and marine life, is an expanded and updated set of regulations on the use of single-use plastic products that was first announced in 2008 but which was never properly implemented.

The latest ban comes at a time when Egypt is focused on reviving its vital tourism sector to levels last seen before a popular 2011 uprising and subsequent turmoil depressed the industry, scaring tourists away and costing tens of thousands of local jobs. The Red Sea resorts – which include El Gouna, Hurghada, Sahl Hasheesh and Soma Bay – kept the industry barely afloat during its darkest days when the Pharaonic temples and tombs of Luxor and Cairo's Giza Pyramids and its famed museum attracted negligible numbers of visitors.

With the Red Sea's rich and diverse marine life and its golden sand beaches, these resorts now hold the key to the industry's future. That something is being done to protect them could only enhance their reputation, particularly with the growing numbers of environment-conscious tourists.

The ban will apply to restaurants, supermarkets, grocery stores, pharmacies and cruise and leisure ships that dock off the shores of the Red Sea province. The ban will cover plastic products like spoons, forks and knives, cups, dishes as well as bags. Factories producing these products will not have their licenses renewed.

It comes at a time when many in the world are shocked and dismayed by images widely shared on social media of sea creatures that have died as a result of swallowing plastic. These images, plus the growing body of scientific literature on the challenges facing the environment, increase awareness of the dangers posed by single-use plastic products.

Ahmed Abdullah, the governor who issued the ban, said it was first proposed by the Hurghada Environmental Protection & Conservation Association, or HEPCA, established in 1992 and widely viewed as among Egypt's most active groups in the field.

"It's a victory for us," said Soha El Ramly, a senior HEPCA official in charge of awareness campaigns. "We have an environmental problem and now it's on the way to be resolved," she said, noting that it was not immediately clear what punishment will await offenders when the ban goes into effect in June.

In comments made to The Associated Press on Tuesday, the governor acknowledged that implementing the ban would be an uphill battle.

Ms El Ramly said the ban will not cover hotels, but pointed out that many of them have already banned single-use plastic to varying degrees.

Egypt's environmental agency said last year that Egyptians use around 12 billion plastic bags a year, causing serious damage to life in the Nile River and the country's Mediterranean and the Red Sea waters.

Egypt's track record on environmental protection is far from exemplary. The government is currently spending billions of pounds to clean up heavily polluted lakes near its Mediterranean coastline that once provided a significant source of fish stocks. Authorities are also fighting a tough battle to protect farmlands from urban incursions or air polluting industries. Cairo, a city of some 20 million people, is thought to be among the world's worst polluted cities. Its gridlocked traffic is believed to cost billions of pounds in wasted man hours annually and is a major contributor to air pollution.

The problem of litter and trash in the Egyptian capital was showcased this week when a video widely shared on social media purported to show a female Japanese resident, wearing a surgical mask, voluntarily picking up trash off the streets in the wealthy Zamalek district.