Egypt steps up campaign against sea plastic waste

Plastic pollution primarily affects tourism, maritime trade and fisheries sectors, which are important to the Egyptian economy.
Saturday 26/10/2019
Choking the river. Egyptian volunteers collect waste and plastic as part of a campaign to clean up the Nile River.(Reuters)
Choking the river. Egyptian volunteers collect waste and plastic as part of a campaign to clean up the Nile River.(Reuters)

CAIRO - The risk of the Mediterranean becoming a sea of plastic appears more likely as years pass.

The Mare Nostrum region is said to be the fourth-largest producer of plastic goods in the world and 570,000 tonnes of plastic end up in its waters each year, a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature said.

That figure is predicted to quadruple by 2050 if action is not taken at all levels of the plastic life cycle, from production to waste management, analysts said.

Egypt is the seventh largest exporter of plastic waste and is estimated to mismanage 42.5% of its waste, far more than the second country in the region — Turkey, with 18.9%.

Egypt is the largest source of open dumping among its neighbours, with 1.3 million tonnes of plastic waste ending in open sites each year, the study stated. From 150,000-390,000 tonnes of the waste end up in the sea.

Plastic pollution primarily affects tourism, maritime trade and fisheries sectors, which are important to the Egyptian economy. More worrisome, however, is a study by the Egyptian Ministry of Environment that said seabirds and many marine species are highly vulnerable to the waste, posing both an ecological and human threat, given that fish that eat harmful plastics are consumed by humans.

Several initiatives have been introduced by Egyptian civil society to fight plastic pollution. The most prominent joined efforts in July and established the coalition Egypt Ban Plastic, whose main purpose is to support a ban on single-use plastic bags in Egypt.

“We don’t need our efforts to be scattered, we need to be unified so everybody has the same vision and [works to] implement it in its city,” said Ahmed Yassin, the marketing strategist at Banlastic, a project from Alexandria focused on promoting a ban of single-use plastics.

“Recycling is not efficient and the way [plastic] is managed is not efficient,” Yassin said. “Also, the single-use plastics are way more than to be recycled, which is a back door for making more single-use plastics.”

Red Sea Governor Ahmed Abdallah issued a decree in April banning the use of single-use plastics in businesses such as diving boats, restaurants and some shops, becoming the first governor to adopt such a measure. Hotels were a notable exemption but many were said to commit to the new regulation.

“We cannot judge [the whole picture] but my personal observation is that there is a huge change,” said Soha Elramly, marketing manager at the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, the organisation that initially promoted the ban of single-use plastics in Red Sea governorate.

“If you go to any supermarket or restaurant you will not find plastic bags or cutlery anymore… and many hotels already have their own system and recycle,” she said.

Elramly also suggested authorities should apply fines so everybody follows suit.

Other regions have introduced bans on single-use plastics, including coastal cities of the South Sinai governorate.

No such measures have been adopted nationally but the Egyptian Ministry of Environment has begun its own projects, such as the 2017 “Enough Plastic Bags” campaign funded by the European Union.

MP Anissa Hassouna in June submitted a petition to ban the use of plastic bags in Egypt and the head of the Industry Committee, Mohammed Farag, announced his intention to initiate a draft law on banning their use nationwide.

Civil society groups continue their own activities, ranging from raising awareness on the effects of plastic waste, developing alternatives to plastic, lobbying the authorities or organising cleaning campaigns.

Seif Elashkar, social media moderator at Greenish, a social business that supports the ecological transformation of other entities, said one of their campaigns was to raise awareness among workers in the stores in Cairo’s Zamalek district to stop using plastic with the goal to make Zamalek free of plastic bags within two years.

Elashkar said Greenish, which is part of Egypt Ban Plastic, was working on projects across the country, such as Very Nile, an initiative to clean the Nile River conducted in cooperation with an Egyptian start-up called Bassita.

Initiatives have flourished in universities, as is the case of the Green Campus from the German University in Cairo.

“We decided to start this initiative after we noticed the huge amount of waste that is produced in our environment,” said Hisham Mattar, president of the group, “and we started at the students’ level because we believe that new generations are more concerned about our planet’s future.”

Yassin said: “Now it is not like in 2010 when the alternative [to plastic] was non-existent. Now we have the alternatives and it can be done.”

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