AMMAN // The UN launched an awareness campaign last week that seeks to replace flimsy, disposable grocery store-style plastic bags with fabric ones amid hopes such a move will cut down on unnecessary waste and decrease the bags' harmful effect on the environment. The measure was part of a UN commemoration of World Environment Day, which is marked on June 5. Paper and fabric bags were distributed free of charge in three main shopping outlets in Amman, Zarqa and Irbid, the country's most densely populated cities, along with posters that urged citizens to "save the environment."
Paper bags are recyclable and take only a month to decompose. Fabric bags are durable and reusable. Each year, about three billion plastic bags are used in Jordan. Their production and disposal - whether in rubbish bins or on the street - creates litter, damages the soil, consumes energy, and clogs water treatment systems. Bags even threaten marine life in Aqaba, where they are blown into the Red Sea, suffocating coral life and killing fish and turtles who might ingest them, environmentalists said.
Bags deplete natural resources and need up to 1,000 years to decompose. If the polyethylene, the petroleum product plastic bags are made of, is not disposed of properly, when it breaks down it becomes toxic, leaks into the soil and enters the food chain. "Plastic bags constitute a serious and highly visible environmental problem for Jordan, where the increasingly urbanised population of more than six million people is contributing to the negative environmental impact of plastic bags and hereby also reducing the possibility of Jordan achieving Goal 7 on environmental sustainability," Luc Stevens, the UN resident coordinator in Jordan, said in a statement.
Goal 7, one of the UN Millennium Development Goals, seeks to ensure global environmental sustainability by 2015. "The threat towards Jordan's environment is very real and the situation will only worsen unless habits are changed. Everyone can make a difference and it is our hope that Environment Day will raise awareness on the impact plastic bags have on the environment and that people will understand how they can help make a real difference."
But changing attitudes may not be an easy task. Plastic bags are commonly used in Jordan mainly because of their cheap production cost, which hovers between 0.10 Jordanian fils and 0.30 fils (Dh0.0005 and Dh0.001), according to the ministry of environment. Safeway alone spends US$1 million (Dh3.67m) a year on 350,000 kilograms of plastic bags, "which results in waste", said Laith Abu Hilal, the company's chief commercial officer in Jordan.
What compounds the problem is the absence of laws that regulate the use of disposable plastic bags, little environmental awareness on their hazards, the absence of fees on plastic bags for consumers and because fines on littering on the streets are not seriously enforced, according to the UN. But the government itself cannot count on people to reduce the use of plastic bags, said Abdul Rahman Sultan, the deputy director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, a non-governmental organisation active in environmental peacemaking. "Citizens themselves should be concerned about their environment and their own health. We need national campaigns. Citizens should have personal judgment and have a sense of responsibility."
Sammar Sawalha, 33, a housewife, said she would start using fabric bags when she heard of the campaign while shopping for groceries. "I don't like plastic bags. I am already aware that they harm the environment. Actually, the fabric bags look better." Inas, 35, said she would not use fabric bags because she cannot be troubled to take them with her each time she wants to shop. "And if they get dirty, it will be a hassle to wash them. I find it easier to carry plastic bags instead of fabric."
Hazem Malhas, the minister of environment, who joined the UN efforts in distributing fabric and paper bags, told schoolchildren how his grandmother used a hay basket for shopping at a time plastic bags were not available. "The fabric bags remind me of my grandmother's basket. She used to take the basket with her when she bought fruits," he told a group of schoolchildren who donned white-T-shirts saying "Go Green".
The government is intent on cutting down on the use of plastic bags. "A draft policy is in place," said Mohammad Khashneh, the director of the chemicals and waste management directorate at the environment ministry. "One of the scenarios is to impose taxes on plastic bags. We have not specified the taxes though, but this measure requires cabinet approval." Other scenarios include raising public awareness about the hazards of the plastic bags, including banning black plastic because they contain toxic material that could ultimately enter the food chain, he said.