By: Moslem Ali
Cairo – Mubasher: Plastic bags that are often used for an average of 25 minutes could take more than 20 years to decompose, while other single-use plastic products, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), might need between 400 and 500 years, since plastics are mostly made of organic polymers or petrochemicals produced from crude oil.
Accordingly, excessive use of plastic bags creates tonnes of waste that often end up polluting waterways, negatively affecting marine life, ecosystems, and food chains, posing risks to human health.
However, there is a growing awareness around the globe about the need for better plastic waste management to avoid negative consequences that could affect generations to come.
The world’s oceans now contain more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste, according to data by WWF, with an additional 8 million tonnes being added every year. This is the equivalent of dumping a truckload of plastic waste in the ocean every minute.
If no action is taken, it is expected that by 2050 oceans would contain more plastic than fish, in terms of weight.
Plastic waste in the ocean and other waterways pose a great risk to the eco-balance. Sea creatures sometimes mistake plastic waste for food, which could lead to choking or death. In addition, this is among the ways through which microplastics, tiny plastic particles, enter our bodies, which has negative effects on our health.
Pandemic adds to the challenge
Many thought that the new reality created by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic might be a blessing in disguise that would allow the healing of nature and restoring eco-balance with lower energy consumption resulting in a temporary decline in greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change.
Nevertheless, the pandemic brought a new environmental challenge of its own, as it led to a surge in the use of surgical masks, face shields, and medical gloves, not to mention plastic bags and utensils. Almost all of which fall under the category of single-use plastics.
Many people think surgical facemasks are made of paper or cotton, but the conventional facemask is 70% made of plastic, Kerstin Kuchta, Professor of Waste Resource Management at the Hamburg University of Technology told DW.
New legal framework
Late last year, the Egyptian Ministry of Environment laid out a roadmap to reduce single-use plastics in line with the new Waste Management Regulation Act, which sets the legal framework for manufacturing, importing, and trading plastic bags.
Assistant Minister of Environment for Projects, Aly Abu Senna, says the new law opens the door for the first time in Egypt to ban single-use plastics. Something that could soon begin in gradual phases when the law’s executive regulations are completed in May. New policies may include taxing plastic bags and subsidising producers of environmentally friendly alternatives through what is called green incentives, which may include tax cuts, he explained.
The new developments follow years of efforts by civil society organisations in Egypt working to spread environmental awareness, applying the best practices in waste management, and searching for more sustainable alternatives.
Efforts by the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) helped push for an executive order by the Red Sea Governor in April 2019 to ban single-use plastics, imposing fines on any violators.
Environmental awareness, education, and communication specialist at HEPCA, Mariam Elsadek, is calling for a return to applying the ban, telling Mubasher that the association plans to cooperate with stores to create suitable alternatives after studying their plastic consumption. They continue to work on educating businesses about the alternatives and at the same time continue with their beach cleaning projects in the coastal city, in cooperation with fishermen and volunteers.
Applying the new law could lead to a nationwide commitment to banning some single-use plastics, not just in Hurghada, Abu Senna commented, pointing to the establishment of a new entity to regulate the waste management sector.
From Hurghada to Alexandria, where Abdelkader Elkhaligi, Co-Founder and Product Development Director at Banlastic Egypt, a social enterprise aiming to ban single-use plastics in the country, believes the coronavirus pandemic represents an opportunity to raise awareness about the benefits of reusable personal tools and utensils.
Call to action
Elsadek, who has a bachelor degree in marine science, is calling for more studies about a wider use of decomposable environmentally friendly materials to reduce plastic waste, which should be managed efficiently instead of unsafe burning that produces harmful emissions. She further noted that HEPCA conducted a study that helped identify the location for a second secure landfill in the city. HEPCA also prepares plans to redesign garbage trucks to include sterilization techniques, in line with efforts to combat COVID-19.
She added that the general public could help limit plastic waste through four steps, known as the four Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle, by refusing to use single-use plastics whenever alternatives are available, then reduce and rationalize the use of plastics, reuse plastic products whenever possible, and finally make sure to recycle.
Meanwhile, Elkhaligi believes more shoppers should start using paper and cloth bags, encouraging the use of personal cups when drinking coffee at coffeehouses, as well as reusable facemasks.
But recycling masks might not seem like a viable option due to contamination risks. However, a startup in France called Plaxtil that was initially established in November 2019 to recycle clothes has already recycled thousands of masks since last year, and even used them as raw materials for manufacturing new protective gear, such as face shields, according to a report by France 24.
Plaxtil collects masks and then place them in quarantine for four days. Masks are then ground into small pieces, and ultraviolet light is used to ensure sterilization. Afterwards, a binding material is added to form a material that is moulded in a way similar to conventional plastic.
A similar success story took place in Alexandria, where Banlastic uses used advertising banners to manufacture environmentally friendly products such as handbags and others, Elkhaligi tells Mubasher. The social enterprise also helped in reviving the handmade kilim industry in Fuwwah city in Kafr El-Sheikh by recycling textile waste.
A national strategy in Egypt was approved in 2019 to increase the rate of household waste recycling to 60-80% compared with a current 30%, Abu Senna indicated, expecting the target to be achieved by 2025 as the country completes the needed infrastructure through partnerships with the private sector.
Meanwhile, the global economy loses $80-120 billion worth of plastic packaging material every year, of which only 14% is collected for recycling. “When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use,” according to a report by the World Economic Forum.
The report titled “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics” points to the overarching global vision of plastics never becoming waste by being reused as valuable materials, in line with principles of the circular economy. Making this a reality would allow an opportunity to maximize the economic return while addressing the environmental challenge. In addition, a social aspect could be included in such efforts, as proven by the aforementioned cases, by engaging local communities in applying environmental policies and sustainable development solutions.
This feature, originally published in Arabic, won first place prize in the sustainable development journalism competition organised by Lafarge Egypt as part of a media training programme.