27 June 2011

Plastic, Fantastic?!

No, it’s not, as the title might suggest, a commentary on cosmetic surgery, but rather a look at the Omani love affair with plastic bags. Seriously, what is it with bags here? I have never before been to a country where their (over) use is quite so prolific and ingrained.  I challenge you to be able to leave a supermarket without one. It’s nigh on impossible even when, as I do, you take your own bags with you.  First you have to run the gauntlet of the customer services (read: security) desk who will try to take them off you, then, if you make it that far, the bag-packers will look at you with a mix of bemusement, confusion or contempt before bagging your items in plastic and then putting them in your re-useable bags.  Of course they will use at least one huge bombproof carrier bag for every two items. Thank you – how generous!

A recent visit to K&M is a case in point.  I was stopped by the vigilant (bored?) man at the desk who insisted I check-in my empty eco-bag. I tried to explain that I wanted to put my shopping in it but he insisted the offending item could not enter the supermarket.  Helpfully though he indicated that he’d bring the bag to me when I was at the till. So far, so good.  Of course he didn’t bother to come over (despite my frantic waving) till after everything was in a million plastic bags, at which point he packed all that plastic into my eco-carriers and looked very pleased with himself.  A job well done. Talk about missing the point!

Variations of the story repeat themselves all the time.  I have, however, discovered that in the new Lulu, if I fold my bags flat and tuck them under my arm, I can stride past the bag-snatchers unchallenged. Result!

Next port of call though is the fruit & veg section where apparently it is illegal to price an item of produce that isn’t in a bag.  God forbid the sticker should come into contact with the skin of a melon (which has probably been priced as a rambutan anyway, but I digress. Staff training on fruit/veg I.D. is a whole other topic!). Anyway, rules it seems are rules: no bag – no price – no purchase. A sticker can not and will not be attached directly to the product. Got it?!

And so to the till again…
I greet the lady in Arabic and ask how she is.  Nine times out of ten I get no reply. I find it astounding that they can so blatantly ignore me, but at the same time I can’t help but be impressed by their innate ability to hide even a flicker of acknowledgement.  Dhofari till ladies would be outstanding at poker!!  I try to maintain a smile despite having been snubbed and turn my attention to the packer.  My Arabic is basic to say the least but I do try my best to make myself understood, usually using both mime and words like “laa plastic” and “kull fee haathi” – which I hope means something along the lines of “everything in this” (pointing to re-useable bags).  I am still met with largely vacant stares but I’m getting better at showing them what to do.  I did for a while try packing my own bags but that seemed to go against some unwritten protocol and led to raised eyebrows and chatter amongst staff which I couldn’t interpret but invariably revolved around the weird Westerner.

The response from shop staff simply highlights though how rarely the request for ‘no plastic’ is encountered.  They are confused because it’s new to them.  In this regard the supermarkets themselves really need to take some responsibility.  Re-useable eco-bags need to be widely available and encouraged, and staff need training on how to pack effectively.  If we can’t get through to the supermarkets on an environmental argument, then hit them with profit.  Less plastic bags = less expense.  We should also support supermarkets charging a nominal fee for bags.  It’s amazing how quickly behaviour changes when cost is involved.  Ultimately though, shoppers also need to be educated on why these changes should be made.  If they feel like the supermarket is simply trying to save money then they’ll resent the lack of free bags.  What does the supermarket really have to lose here though?  Are people going to stop going to the new Lulu hypermarket because they don’t get a bag? I don’t think so!!  Lulu really has an opportunity here to lead the way and set a shining example.  They claim to be a “trendsetter of the retail industry in the region” so let’s hold them to it and push for change.  Words on corporate websites mean nothing unless they are translated into action.  Carrefour talk of “commitment to the environment” and “earning customer preference through social commitment and action” but last time I visited the branch in Muscat City Centre there were no re-useable bags in sight.  I know they produce them and I know Lulu does too, but try finding one.  They certainly haven’t made it to Salalah’s Lulu and they’re certainly not promoted in Muscat either.  Having a few hanging randomly by an isolated till is not enough.  The proof is at the exit where EVERYONE is walking off in a sea of branded plastic.  It’s like part of the uniform. Dishdasha, abaya, plastic bag!

I had a look at some Lulu bags today to see if there was any information on what type of plastic they were made from.  The small size bag simply has “keep your city clean” printed on it. A nice sentiment, but let’s face it - not one that anyone is listening to. (Littering is a real problem in Oman and one that I’ll address in a later post).  The large bag I was interested to see has a logo for d2w and says “this bag is totally oxo-degradable”.  Where I come from oxo is a stock cube(!) so I was intrigued and did a little research.  At first glance I was encouraged –  a green(ish) looking website with talk of plastic degrading and being bio-assimilated “faster than straw or twigs”.  However, my eye was drawn to an initial statement saying “all plastic will in time fragment and completely biodegrade” which didn’t ring true to me.  I’m no expert by any means (just a lay-person with an interest in our planet!) but my whole understanding of the problem with plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade? It photodegrades – breaking down into increasingly smaller toxic particles that pollute soil, waterways and oceans and are ingested by animals, thereby entering the food chain.  Either way, I’m concerned that d2w bags are not as green as they might claim to be.  It turns out that oxo-bio plastic is not designed to degrade in landfill.  Now I don’t know anything much about rubbish collection or disposal here in the Sultanate but since most plastic bags probably end up as household waste, where does that waste go? Into landfill I imagine? Meaning the oxo-plastic wont degrade as intended.  If anybody knows anything different then please do enlighten me. I’d love to stand corrected!

I really do think the answer lies in recycling. To my knowledge though there are no recycling facilities at all here in Dhofar and only very limited recycling up in Muscat. Again, if anybody knows different please do share!

I read a statistic that says 6 million plastic bags are used every month in hypermarkets in Muscat alone. That number is truly staggering – and terrifying! Please take action!!

So what can we do?
  • Say NO THANK YOU or LAA SHUKRAN to plastic!
  • Use re-useable eco-bags for all your shopping (and re-use any plastic bags you still have)
  • Write to the supermarkets to encourage the use of re-useable bags and support a charge on plastic
  • Write to the Ministry of Environment & Climate Affairs to encourage a ban on plastic bags
  • SPREAD THE WORD! Knowledge is power!

22 June 2011

For Dhofar, for Oman, for the World!

Hello and welcome to Dhofar Eco Bug's inaugural post - the first of many I hope. I'm completely new to blogging so please bear with me whilst I get used to the new world of social media. Given I'm perhaps the only person left on the planet with a mobile phone that functions solely for calls/SMS that could prove quite a challenge!! I've made it as far as facebook, but don't expect me to understand twitter, android or i-anything (except perhaps the pod!).  You might have noticed already that I have a penchant for exclamation marks.  It's an affliction. I'm sorry!

Anyway, I've started this blog because in the relatively short time I've been living in Salalah I've noticed some things that, at best, cause me concern and, at worst, make me downright angry. I hope this blog will provide a platform for people to discuss environmental issues in the region and, most importantly, promote action to effect positive change.  Together we can make a difference!!