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Cutting back on plastic

Decreasing the use of plastic and encouraging people to use sustainable substitutes have become official policies of Egypt’s Ministry of Environment, reports Mahmoud Bakr

Mahmoud Bakr , Thursday 12 Sep 2019
Plastic waste
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As the world heads towards minimising the use of plastic because of its environmental hazards, the Egyptian Ministry of Environment has launched an initiative to decrease the use of plastic bags in order to help raise people’s awareness about the dangers of using plastic and environmentally friendly alternatives. 

The initiative is in line with the “Close the Plastic Tap” programme kicked off by the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) this year. During its fourth session in Nairobi, Kenya, the UNEA, the world’s highest-level decision-making body for international environmental challenges, chose this year’s theme as “Innovative Solutions to Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production.” Plastics was a key issue on the UNEA agenda.

Cutting back on plastic
photo: Reuters

Reports released by the Ministry of Environment in Egypt point out that decreasing the use of plastic bags is part of the new system created for waste management preceding the drafting of a new law to be discussed in parliament, to increase people’s awareness of the threat plastic poses to the environment.

Plastics are non-degradable, and disposing of them through burning causes health and environmental problems. By the time the new system is in place, society will have got more used to alternatives to single-use plastic bags, the reports add.

Plastic bags can lead to the suffocation of sea and river creatures when they are disposed of inappropriately, particularly sea turtles that feed on jellyfish that can look like a plastic bag. Dumping plastic materials in the seas and rivers also increases the economic burdens on the state, which then has to spend more on maintaining sewers and water pipes. Moreover, hazardous elements, including microplastic particles, can be incorporated in the manufacture of some plastics that can react with foods.

“Microplastics are now confirmed in table salt and fresh water, and each person on the planet is believed to have plastic in their bodies,” said Maria Fernanda, president of the UN General Assembly, as she launched a global call to help end the scourge of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans in December 2018.

Yasmine Fouad, Egypt’s minister of environment, has stressed the importance of raising society’s awareness of the dangers of using plastic bags and of preserving the environment. She said her ministry was prioritising the participation of civil society in changing people’s behaviour, and she praised an initiative launched by Red Sea Governor Ahmed Abdallah, who banned the use of single-use plastic bags in the governorate in August. She also stressed the need to combine development work with environmental efforts in order to provide a better future for coming generations and focus on sustainable production and consumption.

Fouad said the ministry in cooperation with the Centre for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE) had held a session to raise awareness of the use of non-degradable plastic bags during the UN Biodiversity Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh in November 2018. The session had shed light on the hazards of single-use plastic bags as an environmental pollutant threatening biodiversity and having negative repercussions on the environmental, health, economic and social levels.

She cited the national initiative to ban the use of single-use plastic bags as a leading experiment in Egypt’s policy to protect biodiversity. It was imperative that society as a whole cooperated to change people’s behaviour regarding the consumption of plastics and to adopt practices that protect the environment and biodiversity, she added.

SUBSTITUTES: Fouad said that at the UN conference multi-purpose bags made of cloth were displayed as a sustainable substitute to plastic and one that was both practical and easy to use.

During her visit to the Red Sea governorate, Fouad had listened to people’s opinions of alternatives to single-use plastic bags at the Al-Dahar market in Hurghada, adding that she had asked people to abandon their empty plastic bags and use the multi-purpose bags made of cloth instead.

Environmentally friendly plastic bags have also been distributed to some hypermarkets and stores, while more than 10,000 multi-purpose bags made of synthetic fibres have been given to tourist resorts and stores in the Red Sea governorate, said Maissoun Nabil, head of the Industrial Pollution Sector at the Ministry of Environment.

Decreasing the use of single-use plastic bags was not obligatory in Egypt as it is in other countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, Nabil added, clarifying that the initiative aimed at raising the awareness of people against the use of plastic materials and initiating a dialogue in the community and among plastic manufacturers to reach practical solutions that protect the environment.

Nabil stressed the role of the media, civil society, and the educational system in creating awareness of the problem and the need to encourage people to change their habits through practice, education, and economic incentives.

Mohamed Salah, head of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), said the ministry had launched several campaigns to educate people about the threats single-use plastic bags posed to the environment, health, and the economy. The initiatives aim at reducing the consumption of plastic materials to achieve sustainable development and directing investments towards sustainable projects.

He pointed out that Egypt consumed 12 billion tons of single-use plastic bags annually at a cost of LE2 billion, and this was burdening the economy. He added that many efforts had been made to decrease the use of single-use plastic bags, such as supporting producers to manufacture degradable and paper bags and encouraging consumers to use environmentally friendly bags instead that could be sold at cheap prices.

Hossam Allam, regional manager of CEDARE’s Sustainable Growth Programme, said that a study on Egypt’s shift towards a green economy in the four sectors of agriculture, energy, water and waste management had been launched more than a year ago and a national plan for sustainable consumption and production announced on the sidelines of a special session of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment.

The plan was the result of joint efforts by the UNEA, Egypt’s Ministry of Environment, and CEDARE in which 92 experts from the concerned bodies, the private sector, and non-governmental organisations had participated, Allam said. New bags made of environmentally friendly plastics took 18 months to decompose, unlike the traditional kind that normally take between 30 and 50 years to disintegrate, he explained, though the former were 10 per cent higher in price.

Magdi Allam, president of the Union of Arab Environmental Experts, warned that non-degradable plastic bags could pollute the soil, air and water, prevent the growth of plants, and could be an obstacle to animals searching for food in their natural habitat, eventually leading to their death. Plastics can obstruct the digestive tracks of animals and fish if ingested, and fish and sea turtles die when they swallow plastics. The sun’s rays also cannot get through to coral reefs when plastics are wrapped around them, and this could kill the coral, Allam explained.

Chemical substances used in the manufacture of plastics could also interact with foods, posing a direct threat to people’s health. When these substances enter the human body in sufficient quantities, they can cause different types of cancer, he warned.

LOWERING CONSUMPTION: The government’s initiative to decrease the use of plastic bags was therefore of the utmost importance, Allam stressed.

Many countries had already banned some use of plastics because of their environmental effects, and he added that research would be conducted in Egypt to study the market and take the necessary steps to lower the consumption of single-use plastic bags further.

A pilot project would be applied at one of the commercial store chains. The aim was not to end the plastic bags industry, he said, but to develop it to produce degradable bags and encourage society to use paper bags instead.

Plastic is manufactured through processes that depend primarily on oil, and plastic is made up of a significant percentage of oil products. It is often manufactured from polyethylene, a polymer, or long chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms. With plastic taking hundreds of years to disintegrate and decompose, plastic bags can kill millions of marine birds and mammals and fish every year, Allam lamented.

If plastics remain above the soil, they can directly affect the microbial balance of the soil and impede the feeding processes of plants. If they are buried, plastics can form an isolating layer that separates the soil into two parts, retaining rain water in the upper part and preventing the formation of groundwater. The lower layer of soil then does not receive the nutrients it should and does not receive the right amount of water, Allam said.

In order to minimise the dangers of plastics, people should replace single-use plastic bags with a sustainable alternative, avoid putting hot food items, such as bread, in plastic bags, use a glass bottle for water, and avoid refilling and freezing plastic bottles. He stressed the role of civil society in encouraging young people to get involved in cleaning up beaches and removing plastic bags from seas and rivers.

Iyad Abu Maghli, representative of the UNEA in West Asia, said the plastic-bag project was a step towards adopting sustainable consumption and production policies more generally, helping to integrate the environmental and economic fields and direct investments towards this vital sector and achieve the optimal use of resources.

He pointed out that countries such as Bangladesh, Taiwan, Uganda, South Africa, India, France, Ireland, the UK, the UAE and some other Arab countries had successfully banned the use of single-use plastic bags through a batch of effective procedures that have brought the use of bio-degradable alternatives.

In the light of the absence of statistics about the precise amount of hazards that the use of plastics poses to humans, other creatures, and the environment as a whole, legislative bodies, environmental-protection institutions, and civil society should exert more efforts to raise awareness against the hazards of plastics, Abu Maghli said.

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