How UAE supermarkets can go plastic-free
Here’s a challenge: try going to a supermarket and pick up your groceries without plastic. It’s next to impossible unless all you’re buying are lose fresh fruits and vegetables with your own reusable bags.
A quick walk down any aisle of practically every supermarket in the UAE will show the sheer amount of plastic we’re forced to buy because of lack of alternatives. From shampoo bottles, milk, yoghurt to even organic fruit and vegetables packaged in plastic.
Besides, even though supermarkets have introduced the concept of buying spices, nuts, fresh cuts of cheese and meat by weight, by which you can avoid plastic, the supermarkets invariably pack these exact items in single-use cheap plastic bags or containers without allowing alternatives such as filling your own Tupperware.
Since these are all single-use, only to transport the products to your home, it almost immediately goes into the trash. Even worse, these plastics cannot be put into recycling bins.
Moreover, plastic packaging for rice and other grains can actually worsen the condition and health of the produce in the long run, making it a breeding ground for weevils.
Furthermore, all supermarkets in the UAE offer multiple free plastic bags to customers. Often, they pack just one or two items per bag, using more than required.
The International Plastic Free Day in the UAE saw supermarket chains step up sustainability promotions. One of the major ones was from Carrefour, who gave away reusable foldable canvas bags to people who brought their own bags to the supermarket across 31 locations in the UAE.
On the other hand, Spinneys and Waitrose have been running trials where they charged customers for plastic bags. Waitrose’s three-month trial saw a reduction in the use of single-use plastics. Morne Fourie, GM Marketing Waitrose UAE, told Arabian Business that following the trial it rolled out the plan across all its stores in the UAE.
For Spinneys, the results were also promising and “indicated that the practice would work with our customers,” said Spinney’s spokesperson.
However, Carrefour UAE’s Country Manager, Philippe Peguilhan, told Arabian Business, “For now, we can’t say for certain whether the practice would work… Our goal is to use every opportunity including International Plastic Bag Free Day to educate customers about the importance of opting for more sustainable alternatives.”
Fortunately, this plan could be enforced by the government of the UAE, similar to regulations implemented by the UK, India and other western countries, which need supermarkets to charge for plastic bags. A similar regulation in the UAE might be in the pipeline.
“It is an ongoing effort under the supervision of the ministry, we are working together with the big grocery markets to have the incentives both negative and positive for the use of plastic waste.”Shaikha Al Hosani, executive director of the environment quality sector at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi
While charging single-use plastic carry bags a great initiative, there is much more the supermarkets can do to further reduce the use of plastic. One example is to completely ban plastic from the supermarkets, which will force people to buy reusable bags or bring their own. This initiative has seen massive success in Mumbai, India, where most plastics are now banned.
Drastic action is needed to support the change of consumer behaviour towards plastic. Following are some more practices that have been rolled out in other countries, that UAE supermarkets can take inspiration from:
1. Banana leaf packaging
Some Asian supermarkets have started using banana leaves to hold fruits and veggies together, and sell exotic produce at special prices, without using plastic. Watch how they do so below.
2. Returnable deposit for glass bottles and cloth bags
This scheme allows customers to pay a small deposit for glass bottles and other food containers that help them carry produce and groceries, which is refundable upon return. This can also work for big plastic bottles to incentivise recycling.
The same scheme is seen in the UAE for 5-gallon water bottles by multiple brands, so it is indeed possible to implement. However, when it comes to milk bottles and food jars, it is more practical for supermarkets to implement this scheme for own-brand products, while setting an example for other brands.
3. Incentivise recycling and use only recyclable plastic for own-brand products
In the Netherlands, many supermarkets have recycling machines for glass bottles, soda cans and plastic bottles that give out refund receipts at the rate of EUR 0.10 to 0.25 for every piece, which can be redeemed for cash at the checkout counter.
Supermarkets in the UAE can follow suit. Moreover, removing non-recyclable plastic from their own-brand packaging is the first step to reduce plastic waste.
Introduction of these programmes and changes are clearly working for supermarkets in many countries. We hope UAE supermarkets and business take inspiration from these to bring about more changes to reduce plastic use and unnecessary waste.
Startups and industries work in synergy. With the green initiatives that the supermarkets and UAE government want to take, there needs to be an alternative to plastic—a new space for startups to grow in the UAE's food sphere.
Do you have any more suggestions to curb the use of plastic in the UAE? How would you feel if the supermarkets banned the use of plastic altogether?