After two weeks, Egyptian cross-country adventurer Omar El-Galla will start a new adventure: to swim across Egypt's Red Sea from Suez in the north to the southern borders at Shalateen. Besides scoring a new Guinness record, El-Galla wants his 90-day swim to raise awareness about the hazards of plastic waste, an environmental problem with a priority in Egypt.
"I am swimming to spread awareness about the negative effects of plastic waste on Egypt's environment. The waste is mostly produced by single-use plastic products like plastic bags,” he told Ahram Online a day before embarking on his adventure.
Single-use plastics include grocery bags, food packages, bottles, straws, containers, cups and cutlery. After being used once, they are disposed of or recycled.
Egypt has a plastic waste problem, with at least 970,000 tons of plastic waste produced annually, according to media statements in 2018 by the Egyptian Plastic Technology Centre, affiliated to the Ministry of Industry and Trade.
El-Galla hopes people will be more aware of the problem and modify their consumption pattern.
Egyptian adventurer Omar Galla (Photo:Omar Galla)
“I will swim 900km, 10km every day for 90 days, till I make it to Shalateen. The journey will take three months to complete, during which time a boat will sail along to be my moving home and for me to use during the rests between swims,” he said.
On board the ship, plastic is not allowed. El-Galla is seizing the opportunity to tell the people that we can go about our daily lives without plastic. Instead, he is using cotton bags and glass bottles, for example.
El-Galla's inspiration for his plastic-free journey was the way he observed how people heavily used plastic on his previous adventures, when he cycled across Egypt in 2018 and again when he ran from Egypt's south to its north earlier this year.
“I saw plastic waste from bags and boxes thrown everywhere, in the Nile, ponds and agricultural lands. Plastic is not degradable,” he told Ahram Online.
“While cycling on the road of the Western Desert, I knew I was close to an oasis or a village from the amount of plastic bags I saw flying in the air out of nowhere,” he added.
El-Galla will spend the majority of his 90-day swim in the waters of the Red Sea governorate, the birthplace of the movement against using single-plastic bags that grew in the summer of 2019.
Red Sea governorate bans single-use plastics
In April 2019, Red Sea Governor Ahmed Abdallah issued a decree banning the use of single-use plastic bags starting June in businesses such as restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets, groceries, butchers, fisheries, and pharmacies as well as on safari trips and boats.
The decree also bans the use of plastic knives, cups, dishes and hooks. Only black garbage bags made of plastic are allowed. The governorate will not authorise plans to produce plastic bags within its borders henceforward.
The ban is being implemented gradually, starting with touristic cities such as Hurghada, Marsa Alam and Sahl Hashish. The governorate gave a transitional period of 60 days for businesses to prepare for the new rules.
Hotels were exempted from the decree. However, a number of hotels committed themselves to minimise the use of single-use plastics as part of their social responsibility towards the community.
The force behind the decree that earned the Red Sea governorate the admiration of the public is the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA).
“A few months ago, HEPCA presented a memo to the Red Sea governor about the dangers plastics -- particularly single-use plastics -- pose to marine and human life, and how several countries around the globe banned the use of single-use plastics,” Suha El-Ramly, HEPCA's marketing manager, told Ahram Online.
In July 2019, nearly 90 countries in the world have already imposed restrictions on single-use plastic including ban orders.
One of the feats of the environmental NGO, founded in 1992 by members of the diving community in Egypt’s Red Sea, was when Governor Abdallah issued Decree 167/2019 banning single-use plastics.
Hand-in-hand with a supportive governor, HEPCA organised several public events to raise awareness about the decree, including workshops and conferences as well as public meetings in the streets of Hurghada, where HEPCA members in coordination with the city officials distributed cotton bags in the market as an alternative to plastic bags.
Alternative to plastic bag distributed in Hurghada markets by the governorate and HEPCA in summer 2019 (Photo: HEPCA)
El-Ramly, who lives in Hurghada, saw the people and commercial establishments committing to the decree. “In 2010, the Red Sea governorate issued a similar decree, but the people did not commit to it. But now, a decade later, the people are committed to the decision and the cause," she said.
The environmentalist does not have the exact figures on how many people in the southern governorate are committed to the ban. But in three months time shops, restaurants and supermarkets will have to implement the decree lest they be fined, she added.
“In downtown Hurghada, every supermarket is providing alternatives to plastic bags. I know the decree is not fully implemented, but there was such a huge progress in a very short time,” she said.
HEPCA's success in the Red Sea governorate encouraged other NGOs and environmentalists across Egypt to contact El-Ramly and her associates for advice on how to effect the same ban in their respective governorates.
“I received calls from Alexandria and Dahab. The situation in Alexandria is alarming,” El-Ramly said.
According to a World Wide Fund for Nature “WWF’s study about plastic wastes in the Mediterranean Sea in June 2019, Egypt is the biggest source of plastic wastes ending up in the Mediterranean. Several Alexandrian NGOs embarked this summer season on awareness campaigns in populated beaches including beach clean-up campaigns, but the cosmopolitan city needs much more efforts exerted in this direction.
Dahab follows suit
Following in the footsteps of the Red Sea governorate, South Sinai's Dahab announced in July that it banned the use of plastic bags across the city. According to the city council’s statement, the ban was issued to protect marine life from the dangers of plastic bags.
In the past five years, Dahab became an affordable local and foreign tourist attraction with its hills, beaches and famous coral reefs.
As the small city attracted more tourists all year long, more garbage and plastic waste found their way to the waters of Dahab.
"Without Plastic" ads in Dahab city in July 2019 (Photo: Al-Ahram Arabic)
Before embarking on his swimming adventure, Omar El-Galla told Ahram Online he found countless plastic bags during his month-long training in diving sites in the Red Sea.
In addition, Dahab's city council statement added that, "marine life is negatively affected by plastic waste. Air currents push plastic waste from the shore to the depths of seas and oceans."
The city council also launched a public awareness campaign in the streets of Dahab against the use of plastics.
A coalition to ban plastic is born
The Coalition Egypt Ban Plastic was formed by a group of Egyptian NGOs and businesses on 4 July with the purpose of "supporting policy-makers ban the use of single-use plastic bags in Egypt," according to the coalition's launching statement.
The coalition includes 20 NGOs and businesses like Greenish, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Very Nile and Nile taxi.
The coalition said it aimed to raise awareness against the use of plastics by providing alternatives to consumers and businesses.
Since the coalition was formed, its participants have been launching their own initiatives, be they beach clean-up campaigns or spreading awareness in their own innovative ways.
The eco-startup Drumstick Designs launched an initiative at Egypt’s upscale North Coast beaches, selling the favourite Egyptian freska sweets in paper bags instead of the usual plastic bags that ended up on the beach or in the sea.
Drumstick's Freska paperback in Egypt's North Coast (Photo: Drumstick)
Information about the dangers of plastics and their disposal methods was written in Egyptian Arabic on the paper bag so it would raise awareness about the cause.
Drumstick Designs also designed, mass-produced and offered for sale cotton shopping bags for businesses.
Another coalition member, Banlastic Egypt, had an active summer with several initiatives of its own. The eco-startup organised several events to clean the popular beaches of Alexandria, and its volunteers spoke to the public about the dangers of plastic.
Banlastic Egypt also launched for sale cotton bags woven by female breadwinners. Bio-degradable plastic-free cutlery were introduced in packs by Banlastic Egypt to provide an alternative to plastic cutlery used in restaurants.
Cotton bags were introduced for the first time at a number of upscale chain supermarkets in Cairo this summer by several NGOs. Paper bags used to wrap meat and fish are making a comeback after they had disappeared from Egyptian shops for decades. Several workshops began to advertise they were producing biodegradable carton straws instead of plastic straws.
While initiatives against the use of plastics have stopped for this summer season, more eco-startups are marketing their directly on social media platforms, providing user-friendly and affordable alternatives to plastics.