Just 9% of the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled. This explains the shocking amount of plastic that has leached into our oceans and piled up in landfill, inflicting immeasurable damage to our planet.
The Middle East has only recently begun to wake up to its dependence on single-use plastic. We now need to drive rapid and radical transformation throughout the region with the support of governments, the private sector and the public.
We have much to learn from the progress made by countries in both the developed and developing world who have already taken concrete action. Having carefully analysed what has worked well elsewhere, here are five crucial areas that will significantly reduce single-use plastic in the Middle East:
1. Corporate pioneers
Companies have the power to directly influence customer behaviour. We can create incentives by offering discounts for reusable cups, awarding loyalty points for recycling or allowing “green shoppers” to skip the queue. We can also introduce disincentives, as has been witnessed by the dramatic reduction of plastic bag use where charges have been introduced. We can use marketing campaigns and “nudge theory” to persuade customers to act on their good intentions.
At Majid Al Futtaim, we believe in all these methods but have gone a step further, becoming the first company in the MENA region to commit to phasing out the distribution of single-use plastic by 2025. The policy will impact all our businesses, from shopping malls, cinemas and hotels to corporate offices, in the next five years. We will start with Carrefour supermarkets, gradually eliminating the distribution of single-use plastic bags, disposable cutlery, polystyrene containers and similar products. The decision may not be popular with all of our customers, but we are committed to stimulating change nevertheless.
2. Permeating the supply chain
No company operates in isolation and no one company can solve the problem of plastic waste. There are significant opportunities for businesses to influence their wider environment. In particular, firms can engage with their suppliers, stressing their own priorities and values to their business partners and encouraging them to adopt the same values. For example, mangoes may arrive in protective polystyrene trays and cardboard boxes may be delivered wrapped and sealed with plastic film, but is there another way? The relationship with suppliers is an additional opportunity to reduce unnecessary single-use plastics and we can work together to find different solutions to the way goods are transported and delivered around the world.
3. Looking to the law
Similarly, companies cannot bring about long-lasting change without an enabling regulatory environment. As we take the bold move to ban single-use plastic in our stores, there is a risk that some customers will simply choose to shop elsewhere unless there is a level playing field. From Costa Rica to India and Taiwan, governments are banning single-use plastic, while the EU has pledged that all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030.
Here in the Middle East, there is also some positive movement with regional authorities in both Lebanon and Egypt regulating to restrict single-use plastics, while the government of Oman says it will implement a plastic bag ban. I look forward to the Gulf states taking more bold measures in the next couple of years, so that neighbouring countries will be inspired to follow suit, paving the way for far-reaching and significant change.
4. Harnessing technology
Technology, of course, offers multiple solutions. Firstly through the development of innovative plastic alternatives, from cassava-based eco-bags to PlantBottles; and secondly, through social media campaigns that resonate with local people. In Georgia, for example, a hard-hitting campaign showing pictures of trees strewn with plastic bags won widespread public support in 2015, ultimately leading to a total ban this year.
We can also harness the power of technology and artificial intelligence to initiate behavioural change. For example, when you park at a mall, your phone could ping with an automatic SMS reminding you to take your reusable bags with you.
5. Changing attitudes
Let’s be honest: there are still some people who don’t want the inconvenience of recycling or who forget their reusable bags, but attitudes are changing. In a survey of our customers across 13 countries, we found that people are slowly more receptive to changes in the status quo. There is some regional variation, but the survey results will help inform the pace and method which we use to roll out our new policy to eliminate single-use plastic.
Creating a change in attitudes is perhaps the hardest nut to crack. Yet by focusing on all of the above, customers can be nudged, influenced, educated and given incentives to change their habits for good.