In March, Tunisia is set to become the first Arab country to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags. Worldwide, only a few countries have done so as most opt to levy a fee for their use. Tunisia consumes approximately a billion plastic bags a year, 80% of which is not recycled or disposed properly. Plastic litter has become dominant along Tunisia’s landscape and poses a major problem to the Tunisian authorities. Non-biodegradable plastic bags take at least 500 years to decompose compared to three to six months for biodegradable bags. This decision moves Tunisia one step closer to reducing the amount of waste that cannot be recovered.
According to the Earth Policy Institute, about a trillion plastic bags are used globally every year. Collected plastic bags that are not recycled or reused end up either getting land filled or incinerated. If not disposed of properly, they end up in the environment. A recent report warned that there will be more plastic, including plastic bags, in the sea than fish by 2050.
Plastic bags also have an adverse impact on biodiversity, mainly to wildlife. About a billion seabirds and mammals die each year from eating plastic bags. Over the past 25 years, researchers found that sea turtles have been mistaking plastic bags for jelly fish and ingesting them at an increasing rate. In addition, the resources that go into the production of plastic bags are significant: it takes about 430,000 gallons of crude oil to produce 100 million plastic bags.
While Lebanon’s consumption of plastic bags may be insignificant compared to other countries, it has been negatively affecting the local environment. Last year, a sea turtle over 50 years old washed up on shore had apparently died choking on a plastic bag. Insufficient waste data in Lebanon makes it impossible to estimate the amount plastic bags disposed of in the country. However, the fact that all supermarkets and fruit sellers provide them for free indicates that it is significant.
The capacity for industry to recycle plastic bags in Lebanon is quite low. In a recent project, Ecocentra found that solid waste operators in the south Lebanon and Zahle have a lot of trouble dealing with them as they get mixed up with other trash, complicating the secondary sorting and reducing the quality of recovered material. For instance, plastic bags get mixed up with recovered paper which makes it less desirable for paper recyclers driving the price of paper waste down. Trash scavengers do not collect plastic bags because they have no one to sell it to.
Banning or at least incurring a fee on the use of plastic bags in Lebanon would be a smart move all around. It will encourage reduction or reuse of these bags, leading to a decrease in the amount of non-biodegradable waste that may end up in a landfill, or worse – in export containers.