Recycling: What It Is and What It Isn’t

The main focus of my blog is sharing ways we can all REFUSE disposable plastic, but I also encourage us all to RECYCLE. Not because it is the answer to our waste problems, but because I know that none of us lives a 100% waste-free life and it’s important to keep waste that can be used again out of the landfill.

Hemeya, the local NGO currently tasked with Dahab’s rubbish collection, sorts the metal, cardboard, glass, and plastic waste and sells it on to buyers for “recycling”. (Read more about Hemeya here.)

But what does it mean to recycle?

First, let’s talk about what it’s not. If you take an empty water bottle and make a planter or a candle holder, that’s not recycling. That’s a great way to REUSE or REPURPOSE the bottle, but it’s not recycling. To reuse something means to use it again after it has been used. You might reuse an item for the same purpose, like reusing an empty jam jar to store your own homemade treats. Or like the returnable Stella (the local beer) bottles that are collected, cleaned, and reused again and again. You might also think of a new use for an old item, like making a bucket from an old car tire. (You can buy these at shops in Asalah!)

A bucket made from an old tire.

A bucket made from an old tire.

Reusing or repurposing items is an excellent way to keep useful waste from ending up in the landfill. It helps save time, money, and energy.

Technically, if a product is recycled, it is broken down into raw materials and be made into the same product. Used printer paper would be made into new printer paper. Discarded plastic water bottles would be made into new water bottles. But these processes are usually difficult and/or expensive, especially when it comes to plastic. So most of the “recycling” that is happening actually involves producing different material, not the same. For example, water bottles are “recycled” and made into plastic egg cartons, like the one pictured below.

used to be a water bottle

An egg carton made from plastic bottles (in America)

Glass and aluminium are more often truly recycled into new glass and aluminium products but NOT plastic. Plastic is usually downcycled, or made into new material or products of lesser quality or usefulness. Over time, downcycling reduces the quality of a material. Plastic water bottles, when “recycled” are often mixed with other plastics to make a new lower-quality hybrid. This new material can then be molded into something like a park bench, carpet, or speed bump. Eventually, plastics that are downcycled reach a point when they cannot be used anymore and they end up as trash in a landfill.

Graphic via Activist Abby

Graphic via Activist Abby

When waste material is truly recycled, that is – made into the same product, there are many environmental benefits. It prevents waste of useful materials. It reduces the consumption of new raw materials. It reduces energy use. It can reduce air and water pollution associated with traditional waste disposal. But since plastics are downcycled, the benefits are much less. New plastic water bottles are continually being produced, using fresh raw materials, using much more energy.

We cannot solve the problem of plastic pollution by continuing to make new plastic products that cannot be recycled because there will still be a constant flow of new, or virgin, plastic – if there is demand. Our first priority, then, needs to be to REFUSE disposable plastic products when we can, REDUCE the amount of products we need, and REUSE them when we are able. The last resort before the landfill is to RECYCLE.

Plastic shopping bags are not “recycled” here in Dahab so if you do only one thing to reduce your plastic footprint, let it be to bring your own reusable bag to the supermarket and green grocer.

In my next post, I’ll talk about upcycling and crafting with reusables. Stay tuned!

Refuse ~ Reduce ~ Reuse ~ Recycle


Buying Cheese with Less Packaging

Before I talk about plastic-free cheese, let’s take a moment to review why we should REFUSE plastic packaging, especially when it is on our food and drink, because it’s about more than just our environment. It’s about our health. Studies show that the phthalates in plastic packaging leach into food. These chemicals have been linked to health ailments ranging from asthma and allergies to early puberty and fertility issues brought on by hormone disruption. There is still debate about how much of these chemicals our body can absorb before they become dangerous toxins.

Here are a few articles if you’d like to read more:

One easy way to avoid plastic packaging on cheese is to BRING YOUR OWN CONTAINER to the deli at the supermarket. Ask the store clerk to weigh your container first and “zero” the scale before placing the cheese in your container. As usual, our deli of choice is the one at Alf Sunf (1,000 Items) in Asalah Square. They have always been very patient with our requests and willing to use the containers we bring. Every once in awhile a new clerk will start working at the deli and we have to repeat our request, sometimes explaining and assisting with the scale.

We don’t buy cheese unless we have our own container with us, but that wasn’t always the case. Most supermarkets offer cheese on a polystyrene tray wrapped in plastic. In the past, if we forgot our container, we would at least REFUSE the tray and ask only for the plastic, which at least meant a little less waste.

deli cheese

But we’re still working on replacing our reusable plastic containers with other materials so, yes, that cheese pictured above is in a plastic box. This solution may be better for the environment but not necessarily better for our health. Ideally, we’d store all our food in glass or stainless steel containers. Baby steps. Reducing the amount of plastic we use is definitely a process and not something we can accomplish overnight.

What steps are you taking to reduce the amount of plastic waste your household produces?

Refuse ~ Reduce ~ Reuse ~ Recycle

Drinking Water in Dahab (Part 1 of 3)

So far I’ve focused on REFUSING the single-use plastic bags provided by most shops and using cotton bags instead. I know there are some of you already doing this and others who are working on cultivating this habit – and that takes time. While we continue to REFUSE plastic bags, let’s talk about our other huge plastic waste problem here in Dahab – the plastic water bottles!

A few facts to get us started:

Along with plastic bags, plastic bottles are among the most prevalent sources of pollution found on our beaches.

The extremely slow decomposition rate of plastic bottles leaves them to drift on the ocean for untold years.

When plastics break down, they don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade. This means the materials break down to smaller fragments. These [smaller fragments] readily absorb toxins which contaminate soil, waterways, and animals upon digestion. Source

Plastic trash, mostly bottles, washed up on the shore of Nabq Protected Area - just 10 km south of Dahab.

Plastic trash, mostly bottles, washed up on the shore of Nabq Protected Area – just 10 km south of Dahab.

It takes three times the volume of water to manufacture one bottle of water than it does to fill it, and because of the chemical production of plastics that water is mostly unusable.

We [Americans] use 17 million barrels of oil each year just to produce all of those water bottles. To put it in perspective, that’s enough oil to keep a million cars fueled for a whole year! Source

Plastic bottles plague our deserts, too!

Plastic bottles plague our deserts, too!


I am sure many of us know that drinking bottled water is not the most eco-friendly or healthful habit around and the facts above help to clarify why. It’s common to read on American or European blogs about how practical and economical it is to simply drink tap water and use refillable bottles instead of buying water in plastic bottles. In fact, in Cairo, that is exactly what I did. I did not like the taste (or the price!) of bottled water so we installed a charcoal filter (to get rid of the chlorine that is added during the purification stage) directly to an incoming tap in the kitchen and had clean, tasty water at our disposal whenever we wanted. I filled reusable water bottles to take with me to work and other outings.

In Dahab, however, water is another story! Most of us are ecstatic just to have tap water provided by the city. If we’re lucky, the water comes on a regular basis and we have a large enough water tank to cover our needs until the next delivery. Many residents are still not connected to city water and must call a water truck every couple of weeks to refill their tanks. Water that doesn’t have to be delivered is a convenience that I waited nearly five years for and for which I am very grateful. So the issue of water is a bit more complicated here in the desert.

In theory, the desalinated water provided by the city to the homes of Dahab is drinkable. It has been processed and purified. The problems are with delivery and storage – dirty trucks, pipes, or tanks that render the water unsafe or unhealthy to consume. Therefore, the majority of residents do not drink this tap water, myself included. Even with the filter attached to the main pipe – I have seen our filters dirty with rust!

Two of my goals for this year is to find out the easiest way to test my water and then research the 3- and 5-stage water filtration systems that are sure to make my tap water drinkable.

So until I have more to share about filters, what are our less-plastic or plastic-free options for drinking water here in Dahab? I’ll be discussing those in upcoming posts so stay tuned.

What is your source of drinking water? Do you have a filtration system in place?


After the latest contamination scandal, can you trust your water? (Egypt Independent)

Plastic Water Bottles Causing Flood of Harm to Our Environment (Huffington Post)

The Story of Bottled Water (YouTube)

Refuse ~ Reduce ~ Reuse ~ Recycle

Listen up, Ladies!

(Men, too, because for sure you have partners, friends, or sisters that you can pass this information on to. Although you may find the rest of the post a bit out of your comfort zone. It’s definitely not anything I thought I would ever be blogging about!)

Before I delve into the issue of plastic packaging, I thought I would discuss feminine care products, specifically reusable menstrual products, because this was by far the easiest plastic-free change I made. It also saves a ton of money and is better for your health!

The Environment

Over 12 BILLION pads and tampons are USED ONCE and disposed of annually, adding to environmental pollution.

In a woman’s lifetime, she is likely to use 15,000 sanitary pads or tampons.

An average woman throws away 250 to 300 pounds of tampons, pads and applicators in her lifetime. The great majority of these end up in landfills, or as something the sewage treatment plants must deal with. Source

This is definitely not the trash we want to see on our streets in Dahab, but unfortunately we do. Used menstrual pads must be one of the most disgusting objects I have removed from the street in front of my house. 

Your Health

A new report by Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) details how the feminine care industry sells products containing unregulated and potentially harmful chemicals, including preservatives, pesticides, fragrances and dyes.

The report lists the following potential health hazards associated with feminine care products:

Tampons: Hazardous ingredients may include dioxins and furans (from the chlorine bleaching process), pesticide residues and unknown fragrance chemicals. Exposure concerns include cancer, reproductive harm, endocrine disruption, and allergic rash.

Pads: Hazardous ingredients may include dioxins and furans, pesticide residues, unknown fragrance chemicals, and adhesive chemicals such as methyldibromo glutaronitrile. Exposure concerns include cancer, reproductive harm, and endocrine disruption. Studies link pad use to allergic rash.

Frightening! I don’t know about you, but I would rather not have hazardous material next to my body.

Two choices we have for reusable menstrual products are reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups

Reusable Cloth Pads

Handmade Cloth Pads

Handmade Cloth Pads

These are essentially a washable fabric version of a disposable menstrual pad. Mostly made by small businesses, these come in a huge variety of types. Using fabrics such as bamboo or cotton, they can be very absorbent and some even include a waterproof layer to give the same security as a disposable pad. Cloth Pads can be reused for many years. After they have been worn, they can be rinsed clean or left to soak and washed in a washing machine with the rest of the laundry.”

There are plenty of DIY instructions available on the Internet on how to make your own cloth pads. Here’s one page with links to many different patterns. If you prefer pads and have a sewing machine, this option may be the one for you! And if you do have access to a sewing machine, perhaps you’d consider making extras to sell to other women here in Dahab. (hint, hint)

TIP: If possible, make your own reusable cloth pads. If not, purchase some the next time you are abroad and bring them back with you. Or ask a traveling friend or visitor to bring them to Dahab for you.

Reusable Menstrual Cups

Meluna Menstrual Cups By Frank Krueger ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Meluna Menstrual Cups By Frank Krueger ( [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There are now several brands of Menstrual Cup available around the world. A Menstrual Cup is a soft bell shaped item which is used inside the vagina to collect the flow. They are removed to be emptied, rinsed out and replaced. They can be boiled in a pot of water to be sterilised before and after each period. The one cup can last many years, can be used while swimming or sleeping and does not have the same TSS risks as tampons do. They also have a much greater capacity than tampons and can safely be kept in place for 12 hours.”

When I moved to Dahab and decided to stop using tampons, I switched to using a menstrual cup. The only drawback to this option is the fact that you cannot purchase menstrual cups here in Egypt. But most brands ship worldwide and some even offer free shipping. Prices start at about 20. Here is a list of brands available. Research the options and decide which one works for you! (I went with Femmecup.)

Menstrual cups do take some getting used to, but having a shatafa (water hose) on most toilets here in Egypt makes dealing with the cups so much easier!

TIP: Purchase a reusable menstrual cup and have it shipped to an address here in Dahab. Be aware that you may have to pay customs once it arrives. If you’d rather not trust the Egyptian post, buy your cup when you travel home (many of us do at least once a year!) or ask a visiting friend to deliver your cup to you.

TIP: If you want to continue using tampons, choose ones without plastic applicators. That’s a lot less waste!

TIP: If you want to continue using pads, choose ones that aren’t individually wrapped. Pads are not sterile so they don’t need the extra packaging.

Is switching to reusable menstrual care products a change you are willing to make? Why or why not?

Refuse ~ Reduce ~ Reuse ~ Recycle

Disposable vs. Reusable


Over 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide.

About 1 million plastic bags are used every minute.

A single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade.

Plastic bags remain toxic even after they break down.

Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it.

This blog focuses on reducing the amount of single-use or disposable plastic we use, the plastic that is manufactured so we can use it for a few minutes or even just a few seconds before we discard it or “throw it away”. I previously shared the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s “Basic Concepts of Plastic”, but it is something worth discussing again.

One of the biggest problems is that this plastic will NEVER go away. It will always be around in our environment. Plastic does not biodegrade; it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Each and every piece of plastic ever made it still around today – somewhere, in some form.

Plastic never goes away.

And while it’s around, plastics leak toxic chemicals into our food, soil, and water causing illness and death in humans and wildlife. 

In terms of health risks, the evidence is growing that chemicals leached from plastics used in cooking and food/drink storage are harmful to human health. The most disturbing of these are hormone (endocrine) disrupters, such as Bisphenol A (BPA), which can stimulate the growth of cancer cells. Exposure to BPA at a young age can cause genetic damage, and BPA has been linked to recurrent miscarriage in women. The health risks of plastic are significantly amplified in children, whose immune and organ systems are developing and are more vulnerable.” Life Without Plastic

Reusable Plastics

In this blog, I often suggest replacing single-use plastics with reusable plastic containers. It is important to note, however, that recent research shows that some of the plastics we like to reuse also have health problems associated with them.

Read more:


Plastic food containers are labeled with a number that indicates their type of plastic. The safest ones to REUSE are #2, 4, and 5 and you should AVOID reusing #3, 6, and 7. Taking a quick look at the boxes I reuse – dairy product containers made by Juhayna and some of the boxes that I’ve purchased – I noticed they are all #5. Unfortunately, not all of the reusable plastic boxes that I’ve purchased are labeled. 

Ideally though, we would all have glass, ceramic, or stainless steel containers to use. But we don’t. Read the articles linked above, do your own research, and then decide whether or not you want to use plastic at all for storing foods. If you want to avoid all plastic, you’ll have to find or invest in some other containers. You can REUSE the glass jars that olives, jam, etc. come in or check the second-hand markets in town and online. For me personally, for now I am using what I have – a range of plastic, glass, and stainless steel containers. I avoid the plastic containers for hot foods but perhaps need to rethink the use of the plastic containers in general.

So if you’re lucky enough to have some glass or stainless steel containers, that’s great! Please use them for food instead of reusable plastic ones. You’ll be protecting your health.

Refuse ~ Reduce ~ Reuse ~ Recycle

Take a look at our trash and be inspired to change!

Turning my camera lens on the various trash piles in Dahab was very difficult for me. I prefer to point my lens at the natural beauty in the world. But I came to realize that perhaps too many of us walk or bike around town ignoring the growing piles of rubbish. We get used to it, we turn our heads the other way because we think there is nothing we can do, we choose to focus on the good things in our town instead. Understandable.

But then I read about Green11, a company based in California that offers personal care and cleaning products in bulk, in refillable containers. Here’s what got my attention:

The co-owners of Green11 “had witnessed the environmental effects of plastic packaging firsthand while scuba diving in Egypt for seven weeks. On some of the most remote beaches on the planet, they saw plastic everywhere they looked…” (Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too)

So I got to thinking that if this couple can find inspiration in our trash, perhaps we can, too. Perhaps if we look at these images and pay attention to the rubbish we pass on the streets, we can find the motivation we need to make changes in our lives, to decide to live with less plastic.

And while much of the waste is produced by us local residents, it is not all our trash. Dahab must also deal with the enormous amount of waste left behind by tourists. There are also reports of the passing container ships dumping their trash into the Gulf of Aqaba which then finds its way to our shore.

The rubbish problem can seem overwhelming, but that is no reason to ignore it. Let’s all take a closer look at our surroundings and, like the owners of Green11, make a decision to do something about it, at least on a personal level. Let’s all be role models for our children, the visiting tourists, and local businesses.

“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

Refuse ~ Reduce ~ Reuse ~ Recycle

Basic Concepts about Plastic

Plastic is forever

Plastic creates toxic pollution at every stage of its existence: manufacture, use, and disposal. Plastic is a material that the Earth cannot digest. Every bit of plastic that has ever been created still exists, including the small amount that has been incinerated and has become toxic particulate matter.

Plastic poisons our food chain

In the environment, plastic breaks down into small particles that attract toxic chemicals. These particles are ingested by wildlife on land and in the ocean, contaminating the food chain.

Plastic affects human health

Harmful chemicals leached by plastics are present in the bloodstream and tissues of almost every one of us, including newborns.

Disposable plastics are the main source of plastic pollution

Consumption of disposable plastics—bags, bottles, straws and so forth—has spiraled out of control. These items are used for seconds, hours or days, but their remains last forever.

Plastic recycling is not a sustainable solution to the crisis

Most of our plastic waste is landfilled, downcycled, incinerated or exported to other countries. Recycling of plastic is costly and does not stem the production of virgin plastic product.

Plastic pollution is not only in the ocean

The amount of plastic pollution in the ocean is expanding at a catastrophic rate, but there are similar concentrations of plastic in the desert, in every community around the world, in our homes and in us.

::Taken from the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s website. Plastic Pollution Coalition is  a global alliance of individuals, organizations, businesses and policy-makers working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, animals and the environment. ::

Read – and share! – the Basic Concepts about Plastic in ARABIC.

Refuse ~ Reduce ~ Reuse ~ Recycle