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!

14 comments:

The Linoleum Surfer said...

You should contact the Environmental Society of Oman. They also have a Facebook page. They had a big campaign about plastic bags a while back.

Personally I gave up on using my own bags. I re-use plastic bags from the supermarket as liners for the waste baskets in my house, and like you, get incensed about things being put in individual bags! Normally I try to find a till with no "packer" so I can do it myself without offence!

I agree though - would it be so hard to insist on biodegradable bags only? Maybe even start making them? I seem to remember reading something about Bangladesh doing this, as one of the major producers of plastic bags as well as users. the Indian sub-continent is definitely a real home for this bag fixation. I still don't understand the logic of putting a single bag of Chips Oman into another plastic bag...

Anyway good luck, and good writing!

TLS

Dhofar Eco Bug said...

TLS - you're right. Bangladesh was the first country in the world to ban polythene bags. If they can do it why can't we?! I'm a member of ESO and support them, but the problem is they have no active or ongoing campaigns. There has to be much more of a concerted effort made to raise awareness, change attitudes and ultimately change behaviour. They launched a 'no plastic bag' campaign back in 2008 but we can see how well that has worked! One-off campaigns are not the answer and besides, where's the follow up? 3 years have gone by and all the website says is "phase 2 of the campaign will be launched in the near future"...

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Maybe you should volunteer to start phase II yourself: A mass write-in to the ministers of commerce and environment, and to the owners of the major malls and supermarkets...

Dhofar Eco Bug said...

Absolutely! The aim of this blog is exactly that - to use the collective momentum of interested people to effect change. Right now that momentum is getting lost. I intend to write a template letter to the Ministries and supermarkets that people can utilise for that very purpose. Watch this space!

Anonymous said...

Great post!!! Our neighbours are supposed to be doing something here regarding recycling - if I could communicate - I'd find out more!!

I do what TLS does - try to reduce the number - and re-use, don't imagine that the black bin liners are any better here (but I may be wrong!)

Looking forward to more posts.

Dhofar Eco Bug said...

Thanks Anon - and keep up the good work! In time I hope to establish an active group of people to get involved in beach clean-ups, awareness raising at supermarkets, petitioning and letter writing to Ministries etc. so please stay in touch! :-)

Travelallergy said...

Yes! Finally someone else who seems to care about the environment in Oman. Still cannot believe that people here don't seem to care about what pollution does to their beautiful country! I always bring my eco-shoppers and by now the security guys & the packers at LULU know me. "Here comes the wacky woman who brings her own bags and won't even let us pack them for her!". :-)
I also don't understand why the packers don't know HOW to pack. They just chuck everything into (separate little) bags! If they were more efficient they wouldn't need that many bags in the first place. But oh no, mustn't put deodorant in the same bag as cat food. No can do! I've actually tipped one packer because he packed the things nicely...

And I agree, make people PAY for plastic bags. In Europe I think we pay 0.25 Euro per bag. Which is roughly 100 baiza. So, a quick calculation: for my weekly shopping I would need about 10 bags the way the packers @ LULU pack. This would cost me 1 OMR/ Week x 52 weeks = OMR 52!

You can see why back home nearly everyone brings their own Reusable bag....

Oman Holidays Blog said...

there is limited recycling in Muscat - Cardboard, Alu Cans, Waste Oil are principal elements.
Plastic bags - I feel are directly equated with giving good service - even a single can of Pepsi is but in one or one is demanded - only to be dumped as soon as the door is passed.
LuLu baggers in Muscat do respond to requests for single bags rather than a bag for each item, persistence does pay off
ESO indeed did a campaign - however repetition is key to success and where is the campaign now? The simple answer to plastic bags is for them to be banned and replaced by xyz alternative - or are the plastic bag manufacturers the only entity in control of Omans packaging future

mikidi said...

Sea turtles eat jellyfish and often mistakenly eat plastic bags. If they eat enough it kills them. With such a large population of turtles and admirably raised consciousness to protect them, a "ban-the-bags" movement along the coast would be a great step forward!

Secret Salalah said...

A big welcome to a much needed new blog.

We could not agree with you more, and it's wonderful to see that many others agree as well. It seems a lack of insight is the main reason for the plastic bags problem. How can we help packers and managers and shoppers understand?

One solution is for stores to sell attractive, durable reusable bags. They may also realize that this attracts a more lucrative kind of shopper!

Expatmummy said...

I bought some re-useable bags during the ESO campaign a few years ago. I sent them down the belt first at the till so my shopping could be packed in them, and when I turned round they were nicely packed in several plastic bags!
Re. speaking Arabic to people in customer facing roles, the only place they respond to you is Al Fair! I personally gave up after being shouted at by the guy at the accounts dept in the SQU Hospital. I was not Muslim therefore I wans't allowed to speak Arabic!

Kapil said...

Brilliant idea for a blog :) Big respect to anyone who cares about the environment here in Oman.

Cheers, will follow your blog closely :)

ynotoman said...

ExpatMummy -
suggest to your shouting accountant that he educates himself -
and tell him that those Arabs or nationals of other Arab nations who practice religions such as Christinity, Yazdanism, Mandaeism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism would be shocked at his statement

Dhofar Eco Bug said...

Thank you all for your comments. It's very encouraging to know that there are others out there who share the same viewpoint. I really believe that if enough of us come together on this issue then we can make a difference. Please do write to the supermarkets and Ministries to voice your concerns - and please report back on any replies you receive - either here or on the Facebook page: Dhofar Eco Bug. Many thanks! :-)