The UAE could and should be a world leader in the battle to curb the scourge of plastic. But it requires everyone to play their part.
“It needs all hands on deck — government, communities, families, friends, everybody,” says Winston Cowie, manager of marine policy at the Environmental Agency in Abu Dhabi, and a panelist on this weekend’s Livehealthy.ae screening of the short film Plastic Pandemic.
Every person living in the UAE uses 1,182 plastic bags each year, which is three times the global average. Reducing that usage to zero within two years is a prime goal of the government’s policy to ban all single use plastic by the end of 2022, said Cowie. He explained that a study by the European Union had identified the top 15 plastic items clogging up beaches in 17 countries. They included bags, bottles, straws, cutlery and cigarette butts.
“The question for us [at the Environmental Agency] was, do we need to do our own regional baseline first, or do we adopt a precautionary principle and act now? We decided to act.”
The agency has identified 16 of the most commonly used plastic items with a view to drastically reducing usage and also aims toward at least 50 percent of bottles being returnable and recyclable.
Plastic Pandemic focuses on the work of Barry Rosenthal, an artist, photographer and environmental activist who creates art out of trash. The film was shot in Abu Dhabi, where Rosenthal created original artworks from rubbish collected from Saadiyat island and displayed at The Livehealthy Festival last January.
Rosenthal started photographing trash because he was initially attracted by the colours of the objects he found at the beach near his studio in Brooklyn, New York. The activism came later.
“I was not environmentally clued in early on,” he said. “It took a while for me to realize it was an environmental project. I go to the same spot and clean it and every time I go back, it’s just as bad as it was. It’s endless, self-renewing.”
The rubbish on beaches is just a fraction of what ends up in our seas and oceans, however. The equivalent of a truckload of rubbish goes into the ocean every second, said Cowie. By 2030 that is predicted to have increased to two truckloads per second and by 2050, to four truckloads. The Covid-19 pandemic and the need to use more disposable items has made the problem even worse.
“Plastic pollution is a huge global issue,” said Cowie. “People think it’s out there, far away but it’s here, regionally and locally, in the Gulf. A study done by our colleagues in Sharjah found that 12 out of 14 green sea turtles found on the east coast of the UAE had ingested plastic and it had contributed to their death.”
Getting rid of plastic is far from straightforward, however, because it is so deeply embedded in our lives. Rosenthal pointed out this is not only because it can be used in so many ways but also because it has acquired social significance.
In the US, the years following the Second World War saw the growth of Tupperware parties, which enabled American housewives to earn an income by inviting friends and neighbors to their homes and selling them plastic containers and kitchen items. In 1996, Tupperware moved into India and the same business model proved successful all over again. Before long there were around 100,000 Indian women hosting Tupperware parties at home.
But it was not only about the quality of the product.
“What it meant was that it lifted women out of poverty and into the middle class,” said Rosenthal. “It became a symbol for anyone aspiring to be middle class. A status symbol was created.”
The durability, malleability and light weight of plastic made it a good replacement for other materials such as wood and metal, and it became the key element of many new industries. Without plastic to make records and CDs, there would be no music industry as we know it, for example.
The versatility of plastic means learning to do without it requires the concerted effort of society as a whole, said Tanya Awad, a developer of sustainability programs and co-founder of Blank Canvas Community, an organization that provides an outlet for collaborative art and wellness. Communities need to re-establish the connections with nature and the environment that have been lost in the frenetic pace of modern living.
“It all comes back to responsibility. We need to feel we are a part of this world and not just in it. In our megacity societies we have completely lost our connections with each other and that has huge consequences on our relationship with the environment. We think of landfill sites as way over there. We don’t see where that disposable cup goes so it’s not our responsibility.”
While the search for new, more eco-friendly materials goes on, Winston Cowie warned that we should not be seduced by terms like “oxybiodegradable.” That simply means the plastic breaks down faster and faster into micro pieces “which stay around for a long time.”
Just as plastic replaced wood and metal, “so it too will be replaced — we just need to work on the technology,” said Rosenthal. Manufacturers of packaging also need to play a part in disposing of the materials they produce before they reach our waters, he added.
“For years, consumers have more or less been underwriting the ability of bottlers to distribute plastic with little responsibility for end use. We want to cut rivers and oceans out of that cycle. The stuff has to be collected before it reaches those places.”
In the meantime, it is up to governments and policymakers to work out directives, and it is up to us to educate ourselves and future generations, and to realize the power we have to change. And a small, community-oriented country like the UAE, with a young population and great trust in its leadership, can show the way for others.
“We as people have the power to decide what we want to consume,” said Awad. “Pair that with strong community and strong awareness and countries like the UAE can lead. There is so much innovation here and the beauty is that there isn’t so much space between the people and the leadership.”
Plastic Pandemic, a Livehealthy.ae webinar, was streamed on November 21, 2020.
The moderator was Felix Beck, professor at the Münster School of Design in Münster, Germany and formerly assistant professor at New York University Abu Dhabi, where he founded the Plastic Lab.
The panellists were Barry Rosenthal, who is based in New York, and Winston Cowie and Tanya Awad, both based in Abu Dhabi.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.