When British expat Lorna Gore used to live in rural Kenya, she would see her house help discarding plastic straight into the tuka tuka pit (ground pit dug for waste) from the bin. That is when the hard reality hit her – that there was no sustainable way to dispose plastic. It was a thought that remained in her mind and she was keen to do her own bit to reduce plastic going into landfills.

Moving to Dubai in 2006,  Lorna and family made a significant lifestyle change, which included switching to plastic-free bathroom products (shampoo bars, deodorant bars, etc.), refill foods where possible, less packaged foods and reusable instead of single-use products. 

For many eco-warriors such as Lorna, Earth Day, which falls on 22nd April, holds great significance. This year is particularly poignant as it marks 50 years of the movement.

In recent months, we have witnessed some of the lowest levels of pollution and carbon emissions as the pandemic swept through the world. But a subtle problem has been lurking in the background. The elimination of single-use plastics has become next to impossible since it conflicted with the requirement to maintain hygiene, health and safety, as well as increase food shelf-life and minimise food wastage.

There has also been a significant increase in the usage of plastic hygiene products and PPEs, which would all be classified as single use, since the home quarantine began worldwide.

‘Earlier I would reuse everything or travel to the shop and use reusable carry bags,’ says Lorna, a special education teacher at the Widad Centre, Dubai. ‘But now we have been advised to throw packing for safety reasons. I have also ordered items such as washing up liquid whereas before we would travel to the shop to refill those.’

Kathleen Russell, owner of Al Mahara Diving Centre in Abu Dhabi, has always strived to support environmentally friendly and conscientious local businesses. From buying products with the least amount of packaging, using reusable bags, buying local products to reduce carbon footprint, Kathleen has intensified her fight against plastic during these testing times.

‘Everyone must stay home as this will reduce the requirements for PPE. Additionally, since we are a social enterprise, we continue to promote reduction of single-use plastics and try and teach kids and the community the same,’ says Kathleen. ‘We are storing can and plastic waste ready to send to recycling containers when possible.’

According to Tatiana Antonelli Abella, Italian founder and managing director of the sustainability-driven social enterprise Goumbook, there has been almost a 100 per cent increase in single-use plastic since the advent of Covid-19.

‘There are quite a few reasons for this,’ says Tatiana. ‘Mostly everyone is now ordering groceries and food online. Online delivery systems don't make any effort to package more sustainably. It also seems that general behaviour is getting worse as we can witness so much more litter, especially masks and gloves being dumped on the streets, grass, anywhere but the proper bin.’

Since 2010, Goumbook has been supporting companies, organisations and institutions in meeting their sustainability goals. One of their most popular campaigns, ‘Drop It – Rethink Plastic’, was launched in 2016 to unite individuals and the local business community in rethinking single-use plastic consumption.

Locally, only 8 per cent of single-use plastic is actually recycled, so Tatiana asserts that the focus should be to reduce the usage.

As a family, they order groceries only from responsible shops that will deliver in carton boxes and paper bags. ‘We have stopped food delivery and just make an extra effort to cook at home. We have made reusable masks and my husband and I reuse our gloves by washing and disinfecting them,’ she says. 

There are other organisations too working to reduce waste generation. Established in 2018, the Zero Waste Collective (ZWC) is the first social initiative in the UAE that promotes a zero-waste, plastic-free lifestyle through local businesses, product swaps and workshops.

Doua Benhida, founder of the ZWC, classifies the single-use plastic problem into two major factors. Firstly, we haven’t reached a loop economy yet where we buy, use and return to reuse. And secondly, the majority of the population isn’t even aware that the problem is so huge. ‘As you saw around the world, everyone went panic-buying and bought so many unnecessary items “just in case” – this not only created plastic and packaging waste, but also food waste ultimately as there is only so much food you can store in a house,’ she asserts.

Doua’s household has been zero-waste for the third year now. But unfortunately she admits having to buy a few single-use items, such as sanitisers, due to the pandemic.

‘We have been trying to reduce as much as possible,’ she says. ‘Since we are allowed to go grocery shopping with a permit, we tried zero-waste shopping and it worked! My biggest advice to UAE residents is to please be aware of how much plastic you are using, and to always go back to the 4R’s: when we can’t refuse, we reduce. Awareness and knowledge is key, now more than ever.’

Doua Benhida’s tips to reducing plastic

1. Always think about the 4R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. When you can’t refuse plastic, then reduce it. When you can’t reduce it, try and reuse it. If not, then recycling should be the last option. People need to stop thinking of recycling as the solution to single- use plastic. If recycling were truly a solution, we would be living in a recycled planet, yet we aren’t. What does that tell us about the recycling system around the world?   

2. Reducing your waste isn’t as hard as people think: Opt for companies that use less or no plastic when packing and delivering fruits and vegetables – so if people would start with at least that, then it’s a great option.  

3. Work on your priorities of the plastic that you can get rid of. I often get asked, “But what about X item, I can’t get rid of that because of…” Zero-waste lifestyle is a very personal one, and what will work for one person, won’t for the other. So you need to set your priorities and see what you are able to refuse. 

4. Find out about solutions and TRY them. There is no better time than now to try the zero-waste swaps. Learn, experiment and fail to see what works for you. If it’s a total disaster, it’s not like anyone’s going to see you, right? To minimise outdoor food (and in turn packaging) browse for new recipes and try them.

5. Support local businesses. It’s more ethical, sustainable to the local economy and ultimately saves a lot of carbon footprint! So many online businesses need your support now.

6. Declutter your household and look into minimalism. Give away to charity, revisit your house and ask yourself if you really need this. If you haven’t used or worn it in six months or more, than it should be given away.

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