While recently hiking in the desert, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, there were bottles in various stages of decomposition and trash bags on rocks and covering thorny bushes like spider webs. Hikers had probably thrown these on their way up the winding and rocky mountain, but many were carried upward by the wind and violent dust storms from further down on the trail. The light hit the dunes, which glittered from the discarded plastic bottles and scattered and tattered plastic bags. This stunningly beautiful landscape of hills and dunes, a little ancient hidden oasis, is the last place you would expect to see so much trash and so much plastic.
The region’s insatiable consumption of plastic products, one of the highest in the world, has been a significant concern. Saudi Arabia is becoming environmentally conscious and responsible, and is doing its part in mitigating and participating in solutions for climate change. Several successful government initiatives have addressed consumer usage of plastics, from recycling to awareness campaigns. These are important as Saudi consumes more than 1 million tons of plastic bags per year.
In 2017, the Saudi Standards, Metrology and Quality Organization recommended that single-use plastic bags be replaced with oxo-biodegradable plastic bags.
By banning plastic bags and replacing them with oxo-biodegradable bags, which are supposed to degrade in 180 days or less as opposed to the 50 to 1,000 year lifespan of regular plastic bags, most people believe that we are doing our part to save the environment. Still, the problem with oxo-biodegradable plastic is that while it degrades within a relatively short time, it ends up as microplastics that remain in our environment and food and water systems for a very long time. We are just changing the size of the problem from an obvious one to an invisible one.
We need to add pressure to shift the debate and increase the chances of finding a viable alternative solution to single-use plastics by widening the net and thinking about a ban of all single-use consumer plastics, from bags to bottles to drinking cups in the region except, of course, for medical and critical needs.
According to a study by Newcastle University, people consume about 5 grams of plastic every week, the equivalent of a credit card.
The alternative is compostable bags, which need highly controlled high heat environments for degradation to occur, but we don’t have enough of the facilities and resources to enable mass collection and proper disposal of these bags. We need an efficient recycling infrastructure and a society that is very highly engaged in recycling culture.
It’s not just plastic bags, it is a plastic culture where everything is wrapped in plastic, covered in plastic, and uses plastic. I recently had a sandwich for lunch packaged in saran wrap, placed in a plastic Styrofoam container and put in a plastic bag. It is disheartening when we know that 90 percent of all plastic made in the world has not been recycled, so the majority will end up polluting our environment, oceans, and lands.
We must reduce the use of plastic in our everyday life.
We must first realize that the solution needs to save the environment, our health and lower the littering potential of plastic bags.
At the current time, we should think about having multiple partial, imperfect solutions that deal with the most critical issues of real degradability. Doing so will allow us to buy the planet some more time to find better solutions on both fronts. If we have oxo-biodegradable bags, they must be used multiple times to justify their toll on our health. More importantly, we need to add pressure to shift the debate and increase the chances of finding a viable alternative solution to single-use plastics by widening the net and thinking about a ban of all single-use consumer plastics, from bags to bottles to drinking cups in the region except, of course, for medical and critical needs.
• Muna AbuSulayman is a well-known talk show host. She was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2004. In 2007, she became the first woman from Saudi Arabia to be appointed by the UN Development Program as a goodwill ambassador.