Once, I asked a student to make a list of things that fly. The #1 item on his list? Plastic bags. Not exactly the answer I was expecting, but taking a look around us in the city of Cairo, how could I argue? Plastic bags are so often seen flying through the air that they are, sadly, referred to as the “National Bird of Egypt”.
These plastic bags are everywhere in Dahab, being blown by the wind into our neighborhoods, deserts and seas. But the problem is not just one of aesthetics. According to Greenpeace, “267 species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of ocean plastic debris including seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, whales, and fish” (2006). Research from the UAE shows that it’s not just marine animals suffering from plastic pollution. Camels, sheep, goats, and gazelles are just some of the desert animals dying each year from ingesting plastic.
The first steps in cutting back on the number of plastic bags in the environment is to REFUSE the bags when they are offered to you at shops, and, of course, bring your own REUSABLE bags instead.
Easier said than done, especially here in Egypt, where providing plastic bags to customers is seen as a necessity, as something store owners must do to show their appreciation. There also seems to be a mindset here that you can’t possibly NOT have a bag for your goods, you can’t possibly walk down the street with your purchases in your hands for all the world to see. That would be uncouth, uncivilized. And so refusing plastic bags can actually become a battle of wills. Yours – to not accept the bag – and theirs – to provide a service to the customers. My husband and I have been refusing plastic bags for several years now and have fought – and won! – most of these battles. It’s not uncommon to have to say, “No, thank you, I don’t want the bag” many, many times before the clerks will give up trying to force one on you. While in the process of refusing bags, my husband often takes the time to explain why we are refusing the bags – and some clerks listen with interest and even ask questions to enhance their own understanding of environmental issues. These are the good days! And then there are days like the one when the clerk ripped the plastic bag off its hook before I could say no and then when I managed to tell them that I didn’t need a bag, he proceeded to throw the never-used plastic bag into the rubbish bin. When I stared at him in disbelief, my husband calmly explained the reason for our refusal, while the clerk calmly explained that he had to throw the bag away because he had already ripped it off! Why he couldn’t have simply placed the bag on the counter for the next customer, I will never know. But I have not been back to his shop since.
It takes some time for the store clerks to get used to not giving customers bags, but if you revisit the same shop enough times and “stick to your guns” as we say in English, the clerks will recognize you and accept what they may see as a quirky habit. This has certainly been the case with our favorite food shop – 1000 Items (Alf Sunf). The clerks see us coming and they know! They may double-check, “No plastic bag, sah?” Sah. And we smile at each other as I point to the reusable bag in my hand.
So, don’t give up! Always refuse with a smile on your face and be persistent.
But REFUSING is only half the battle. We also need to be ready with own REUSABLE bags. This takes practice to remember, a lot of repetition before it becomes a habit. We don’t remember to bring our own bags 100% of the time, but we definitely remember them a great deal more now than we did two or three years ago.
Here’s a summary of tips about REUSABLE bags from Beth Terry’s book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too:
You don’t have to buy new bags; use the bags you already have – backpacks, rucksacks, purses, the baskets on your bicycles. We have one old backpack dedicated to shopping. I also use my purse if I’m only buying a few small items.
Reuse the plastic bags you already have. Give them a rinse if needed between uses.
If you need to buy shopping bags, try to buy used bags. There are a few second-hand shops in Dahab, like The Pink Elephant, as well as plenty of Facebook groups where you can buy and sell used goods. (See links at the end of this post.)
If you can’t buy used bags, try your hand at making your own out of old t-shirts. Read instructions here.
If you need to buy new bags, buy ones made from cotton. Remember to wash your cloth bags. Avoid the polypropylene bags that look like fabric; they are actually made from plastic. They are not washable and they fall apart quickly.
Put some reusable bags in places that help you remember them. Keep some next to your wallet or keys. Stuff some in your purse. Tie some to your bike handles.
If you forget your own bags and you aren’t purchasing too many items, be like the local kids and use your shirt! Or just carry it in your hands. My husband has, on more than one occasion, taken the cap off his head and filled it with eggs when we have forgotten our bags!
Do you carry your own reusable bags? What’s your favorite type to use? How do you help yourself remember your bags? Have any tips of your own to share?
Refuse ~ Reduce ~ Reuse ~ Recycle