Egypt's Battle Against Plastic

Thursday 28 November 201912:39 pm
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On Alexandria’s corniche, a young girl tossed a plastic water bottle on the already littered waterfront. A few steps behind was Amro Ali, professor of sociology at American University in Cairo. “You accidentally dropped a bottle. Why don’t you hold on to it and find a trash bin?”. A little boy, who seemed to be her brother, picked the bottle up, threw it into the water. “The sea takes it away'' he said.

Egypt’s plastic waste is severely affecting the environment, adding to the climate crisis the world is currently facing. A recent World Wildlife Fund report revealed Egypt is the biggest plastic polluter on the Mediterranean, dumping 250,000 tons yearly.

“The same toxins that lead to sexual harassment, violence, and theft in the public space, also lead to littering… Responsibility for fellow beings and collective ownership of the public realm is fragmented ,” Ali explained. He also said “this is worsened when there are no laws, or they aren’t implemented, to penalise people who throw rubbish in public spaces”.

Environmentalists agree there is a piercing lack of public awareness about the dangers of plastic to both environment and health. This is explained by the absence of education around the matter, as well as a language barrier when it comes to information, most of it being in English. 

Fortunately, efforts to combat plastic are on the rise.

A coalition of environmental activists, businesses, and artists was established in July. Dubbed Egypt Ban Plastic, the coalition is “determined to raise awareness on the impact of plastic consumption and plastic alternatives among consumers, retailers and manufacturers,” according to its statement.

A recent World Wildlife Fund report revealed Egypt is the biggest plastic polluter on the Mediterranean, but Egypt seems to be successfully reversing the trend, with many plastic elimination initiatives successfully reversing this dangerous trend
Recycling efforts, awareness campaigns and community efforts are succeeding in reigning in Egypt’s hunger for plastic bags. This awareness has altogether led Minister of Environment Yasmin Fouad to plan phasing out plastic bag use

“It was a great idea...to join forces since we all have the same objectives” said Zi, an artist who launched the online campaign Kefaya Plastic.

The coalition formed committees serving various purposes: education, campaigning, and research and development. In allocating “missions”, instead of divided labor, Zi hopes for a more powerful impact.

“People need to understand that the excessive use of plastic is no longer feasible” said Zi.

When Zi would refuse plastic bags while shopping to reduce plastic consumption, people looked at her “as if I was an alien,'' she recalled. Egypt's Environmental Affairs Agency estimates that the use of plastic bags alone in the country amounts to 12 billion bags annually.

“I got annoyed and felt that the lack of awareness isn't something to be ignored,” Zi said of the moment Kefaya was born. The campaign uses bold, artistic photographs to demonstrate the dangers of plastic. The artist also makes accessories out of plastic waste to raise funds for Kefaya.

Bearing an Arabic name, which means Enough Plastic, “this campaign is mainly addressed to Egyptians and Arabs” Zi said.

Another party to the coalition hoping to spread knowledge is Greenish, established in 2017.

Greenish conducts workshops in areas off the beaten track, such as Siwa Oasis, Aswan, and Hamata. Rather than lecturing, games and theatrical tools are utilized for engagement, bonding, and brainstorming community-based and community-specific solutions. By the end of the workshop, participants turn plastic garbage into their own designed artwork, either take-home handcrafts or big sculptures placed in a public area.

“Our workshops are an artistic experience which lead to knowing more about the environment,” said Shady Abdullah, the co-founder of Greenish.

In addition, Greenish works to build capacities within other environmental organizations, and governmental agencies. Greenish  also organizes massive cleanups. Through its initiative VeryNile, for example, four cleaning events in Cairo and Luxor left 1800 volunteers collecting 21.5 tons of garbage, mostly plastic.

Abdullah remains optimistic. “Manufacturing of plastic alternatives [recently] began in Egypt,” he said.

One such local manufacturer is Banlastic, which mainly offers tote shopping bags made of mostly biodegradable material, and wooden cutlery for restaurants, hotels and hospitals.

Whenever Banlastic talked to people about using the healthier materials, they would be “surprisingly” responsive, said Manar Ramadan, cofounder of Banlastic. “They only needed to know the call to action; what could be the alternative? How can they use plastic more consciously?” she said. 

Banlastic decided to keep its operations where it started in Alexandria, instead of moving to the capital Cairo where the business would grow more quickly. The former is the biggest coastal city in Egypt, explained Ramadan, and its plastic consumption highly affects marine life, as well as clogging water drains, causing flooding in winter.

Meanwhile, to urge Egyptians to properly dispose of plastics, Go Clean goes to the consumer and picks up the waste, then sends it to recycling. Beginning its door to door operations in February, Go Clean went from seven orders to over 100 a day, from householders, schools, restaurants, factories, and offices.

“People are so encouraged to help our environment by recycling,” said Go Clean’s founder Mohammed Hamdy.

With a community momentum to address harms of plastic, along with an international one, as Abdullah of Greenish put it, the government has started paying attention to Egypt’s plastic problem.

The Red Sea Governorate has completely banned single-use plastics, issuing a decree which came into force June 1. The ban was proposed by the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), an NGO specialized in marine and land conservation operating in the Egyptian Red Sea. Among its many projects, HEPCA established a fully-equipped research and educational vessel catering to students from 4 year-old children to PhD candidates.

Several hundred kilometers to the north, Dahab’s City Council President Tarak El-Baz launched the Bela Plastic (Without Plastic) campaign on July 2. With an economy based on environmental tourism, the ever-buzzing Southern Sinai city is aiming to protect its marine life. The campaign trained hotel and restaurant staff to raise awareness among tourists about the dangers of plastic. Volunteering tourism organizations and diving centers have teamed up for beach clean-ups.

In June, MP Anissa Hassouna put forth a proposal to abolish the use of single-use plastic plastic bags from the entire country. The bill will be discussed in the next round of parliament.

“There will be severe backlash from plastic manufacturers, but the livelihood of the coming generations is more important,” Hassouna told Raseef22.

Hassouna intends on discussing the inclusion of these environmental issues in schools with the ministry of education.

“I see how plastic is killing life in seas and rivers and poisoning fish... resources all around the world are misused,” she stated, highlighting how plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose.

Egypt’s Minister of Environment Yasmin Fouad is determined to phase out plastic bags.

Attempting to bring all sides of the equation together is Cairo Climate Talks (CCT), an Egyptian-German platform organizing the conversation between policy makers, civil society, media, business and science.

Eliminating plastic waste is a big part of CCT’s agenda. CCT held numerous screenings of the movie Bag It, and has supported multiple cleanups and conducted workshops in numerous cities around Egypt. It has sat international experts in the fields of waste management and marine life down together “to make sure we have a holistic approach to the problem,'' said Amena Sharaf, CCT’s Coordinator.

“We're trying to do our part through all of our activities, we believe that collective effort is what's going to really make a change,” Sharaf stated.

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