A staggering 47 tonnes of plastic capes and 4.6 tonnes of car service covers are dumped in Oman a month. That’s more than 600 tonnes of lethal waste a year that takes up to 2,000 years to degrade. Alvin Thomas and Hasan al Lawati investigate the dangers that emanate from plastic use.
I’s a cold Friday evening. For most of the working class community in Oman it’s a day of relaxation. However, for 48-year-old barber Sulaiman it’s a working day. He must work harder than usual to keep the customers moving and meet his targets.
His routine is simple: he slaps on a thin sheet of plastic (cutting cape) as a protection cover, enquires about the type of hairstyle and fulfils the needs of the customer. The task is repeated 40 to 50 times a day.
At the end of the day, he collects all the waste – the hair, the paper towels and the plastic sheets – and deposits it all into the nearby dumpster.
While all of this may seem like a day’s work to Sulaiman – or even an onlooker’s eyes – there’s a huge matter of concern that presents itself here: plastic pollution.
Sulaiman’s salon in Ghala has a total of three barbers, and there are four barber shops in the vicinity. The number increases to several hundred when you take into consideration the Muscat region.
What this means is that there is a sharp increase of plastics in dump yards in Oman. To be more specific, as per the research of Shijas Abdul Latheef, an environmentalist who is on a mission to help reduce plastic pollution in the country, there is a staggering 47 tonnes of plastic cutting capes dumped in Oman a month. The number rises to 564 tonnes (!) annually.
Shijas’ research was based on an estimation of the total population of Oman (4,712,685 as of Saturday, November 25, 2017), and a cross-examination based on the probability of residents (about half of Oman’s population) availing the facilities from local salons using plastic cutting sheets.
“This number is the bare minimum from our estimates – and it is only increasing,” says Shijas.
Adding to the matters is the fact that we make use of plastic bags for shopping, plastic seat covers while servicing cars, food protection (including water bottles), agriculture and even in outdoor dining (plastic plates and cutlery). Plastic is also a key material in cars, mobile phones, toys, clothes, packaging, medical devices, and many other consumer goods.
In 2015, it was reported that 322 million metric tonnes of plastic was produced globally. And the figure keeps growing; by 2050, it is expected to be four times higher.
More worryingly, in 2012 it was estimated that there was approximately 165 million tonnes of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. One study also estimated that there are more than five trillion plastic pieces – classified into small micro plastics, large micro plastics, meso – and macro plastics – afloat at sea.
Currently, plastic waste makes 21 per cent of the total waste in Oman’s landfills, thereby making it the second most produced waste after organic waste (food), according to Abdul Rahman Al Busaidi, the Business Development Executive at Oman Environmental Services Holding Company be’ah (a company that aims to manage waste in a sustainable manner that is socially acceptable, financially cost-effective and environmentally responsible).
Be’ah has been closing traditional landfills and replacing them with environment-friendly engineered landfills which are known to prevent liquids from affecting underground water and prevents foul smells, according Al Busaidi.
But he points out that landfills are not the solution for the ever-growing problem of dumping waste.
So far, there is no filtering waste system in Oman which results in plastic getting mixed with other liquid and solid wastes in the landfills. This is one of the reasons why be’ah has invested in building landfills across Oman, said Al Busaidi.
The company states on its official website that sustainable waste management systems aim to reduce the quantity of natural resources consumed, while ensuring that resources taken from nature are reused or recycled multiple times, and that the amount of waste produced is kept to a minimum.
“Our Community Reach Department is working hard on raising awareness among the public to recycle and reduce their consumption of plastic,” he stated.
This is also a view shared by several others, including volunteers from the Environmental Society of Oman (ESO).
“Waste management systems are only one part of solving the plastic crisis,” says a volunteer from the ESO.
“I firmly believe that to tackle this situation, we must take a firm stance against plastics. I understand it is not possible to do overnight, but maybe we can educate the people to act accordingly, and at the very least, reduce our reliance on disposable and one-time-use plastics,” he adds.
And this is exactly what Shijas is up to.
“Growing up, you’ve probably learned about the various kinds of pollution. Air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, thermal pollution and so on are just a few examples of those you would have sat through in a science class in school. Today, plastic pollution has come into the picture as a serious case to be handled,” says Shijas, who is now partnering with his team to help reduce Oman’s reliance on single-use plastics with the use of non-woven fabrics.
He has furthermore started a company – Future Engineering Technology & Manufacturing Co. LLC (Femco) – to aid his efforts.
And his motto is simple: “Join hands to make Oman go green.”
“There is a switch from non-degradable plastics to eco-friendly alternatives worldwide,” says Shijas.
And he’s right. Countries like India, England, USA, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China have banned plastics (at least certain types), or are taxing the customers if they require plastic bags for shopping and other purposes.
Shijas says: “In the city of Bengaluru in India, the fine for simply carrying a plastic bag is Rs5,000 (RO29.85). It’s an income for the government but at the same time they’re reducing plastic in the city – it’s a win-win for the city.
“In Oman, however, this probably has not been incorporated because there’s enough land here to dump plastic waste.
“Generally, things are taken into consideration when something goes wrong; and I believe it is when the land taken by these waste lands increases and the land for inhabitation falls,” he adds.
But that, according to the World Health Organisation, would be too late. Their recent study highlights that plastics pose a serious threat to humans.
While the plastics used to package foods are considered nontoxic, most plastics are laced with chemicals – from softeners, which can act as endocrine disruptors; to flame retardants, which can be carcinogenic or toxic in higher concentrations; and also chemicals to aid in degrading plastic over time.
These chemicals can make it through the ocean and its food chain – and back onto our plates.
That’s not all, though. Videos and photos of several marine life and wildlife chocking, or that have chocked, on plastic have surfaced, bringing to light the topic of plastic reduction.
Shijas himself has encountered several cows and camels on the outskirts of Oman that have ingested plastics – thereby having resulted in their death.
But the answer to all this is complex but feasible, says Shijas.
“When someone raises the concern of banning plastics, they immediately think of banning bags. They don’t care about the other products. Reducing 560 tonnes (from plastic cutting capes) of plastics alone is a huge quantity.
“Banning plastic bags all over Oman at one go would be really tough,” he tells.
“Else, we’ll need to have a company that can supply alternatives on a really large scale. And that will take at least two to three years to set.”
Shijas’ company and his concept has been accepted by the government and he was also awarded land for his company.
“Our fabric is completely biodegradable. The material degrades when exposed to ultra-violet rays and has a half-life of three months. The material is also breathable, meaning that it will not cause accidental suffocation.”
Plastics, on the other hand, are known to have a life of up to 800 years (or more).
“Plastics are not eco-friendly,” he exclaims.
“Our product is already used in tea-bags, children’s diapers and so on. Even the face wipes that you get is of this product. And the best part is that it is all available from 10GSM to 300GSM – which is 0.1mm to 3cm thickness.”
Several companies have already started using Shijas’ “innovative” products, although a complete switch, he believes, will take time.
“But we’re hoping to change the way certain other sectors use plastic; for instance, the cutting capes. Now, these are used in barber shops following a direct order from the Muscat Municipality. The move was actually very thoughtful, because the fabric sheets that were used in salons weren’t safe and was very unhygienic.”
The plastics that replaced the fabric clothes are actually banned in countries like China and India.
“In Bengaluru, India, there is a rule that you can produce plastic and export it but cannot use it for the city. There is also a nationwide rule that you are not allowed to import plastics lesser than 45 microns in thickness.
These cutting capes are known to be 7 microns in thickness and can take up to 2,000 years to degrade completely.
“These are cheap plastics and are for one-time use only. And we want to say ‘NO’ to these single-use plastics.
Another example of excessive use of such plastics is in automotive service centres.
The service seat covers that are placed in the cars – the thin sheets of plastics placed to protect your car while it is at the hands of the technicians – are equally dangerous.
This is known to be 15 microns in thickness.
“These plastics are highly dangerous because it can fly away and move around quickly after being disposed,” Shijas tells Y.
“So, it’s easier for animals to ingest it. There are several cases in Barka where cows or camels have suffocated after eating plastics
which were tangled with their feed. These sheets were found inside their stomachs.”
Then why are companies still using this material? Cost is one of the factors, the young entrepreneur says.
“Initially, when the barbers were buying the sheets from the vendors, they were paying roughly 45 baisas per piece; now it is 25 baisas. I remember that back then they were using substantially thicker plastics, but things have changed now; the plastics are even thinner.
“Another problem with plastics below 45 microns is that they are not recyclable. It’s very difficult to recycle because it sticks to the machine and can even damage it.
“But our non-woven fabric material is recyclable up to 10 microns – which means it is 100 per cent recyclable. This also means it is cost effective, as we can re-use the material.
“This is why I think we need to take the first step. By cutting down on the little things – like the plastic sheets in barber shops and the service seat covers – we can make a huge difference.
Shijas has also done a study on the wastage of service seat covers.
As per Shijas’ findings, roughly 5,000 cars are serviced daily in Oman. Each service cover weighs between 25g to 40g, resulting in the monthly wastage to be around 4.6 tonnes of waste, and 56.16 tonnes a year.
But, he is not simply throwing in worrying numbers; he has answers to all of the concerns, too.
Some of the products that Femco can cover are:
1) D Cut bags
2) W Cut bags
3) Box-type bags
4) Laundry bags
5) Garment bags
6) Cutting capes
7) Service seats covers
8) Protective coveralls
9) Luggage protection cover
10) Bouffant cap
11) 3-ply face mask
“The price difference between non-woven fabrics and plastics can be (at most) 15 per cent,” says Shijas.
“I am willing to provide these materials at no difference or at a maximum of five baisas over plastics.
“At the end of the day, it’s not just for profit. It is for the country and the people. By reducing this much plastic itself you can make a difference. And if I can ever see an Oman with no plastic, I would consider that to be the greatest reward to this wonderful nation.”
The dangers of plastic use
1) Plastic Increases the Risk of Childhood Asthma
Studies have long suggested a connection between childhood exposure to plasticisers and asthma, but a recent Columbia University report found there is even an increased risk before birth.
2) Chemicals in Plastic Kill Female Libido
Phthalates used in plastic have even been linked to low libido in women.
3) Plastic is Destroying our Waterways
An estimated 13,000 pieces of plastic litters each square kilometre of our oceans, and one huge factor to the problem are microbeads. These tiny plastic beads in many of your personal care products are only one of the environmental contaminants polluting our waters.
4) Plastic Has Infiltrated Food
With six different phthalates banned from children’s products in the US, the last place you’d expect to find these toxins would be in our food. Acrylamide is a fairly common plasticiser that’s been linked to cancer, and other phthalates linked to problems with reproductive development have been appearing at unsafe levels as well.
5) Plastic Destroys Hormonal Balance
BPA ( bisphenol A, an industrial chemical) mimics oestrogen in the body, so many people try to stay away from the toxin by using BPA-free plastics instead.