How is the UAE’s Rebound Plastic Exchange program protecting the region’s marine life?

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Plastic waste is responsible for the deaths of 1.1 million marine creatures globally

Words by Hala Dahmane, President & Managing Director, Azraq.

The UAE’s appetite for establishing sustainable goals that fight climate change has soared over the past years. In 2022, the thriving nation was ranked first in the MENA region and 11th globally in the 2022 Quality Infrastructure for Sustainable Development Index report issued by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the International Network and Quality Infrastructure (INet QI). Since being appointed as the host for COP28, taking place at Expo City Dubai in November 2023, the nation has also taken further steps to find sustainable solutions that are accessible to all through various vital partnerships with UAE-based companies and partner governmental entities – one of which is the Rebound Plastic Exchange (RPE) program. However, It is a grim reality that plastic waste is responsible for the deaths of approximately 1.1 million marine creatures worldwide. This alarming fact begs the question: How can the UAE’s Rebound Plastic Exchange program help safeguard the marine life of the region? To fully comprehend the impact of this program, let us delve deeper into the perils posed by plastic waste and the actions taken by the UAE to address this pressing issue.

Studies have shown that a typical UAE resident uses 450 plastic water bottles on average in a year, which translates into a total of 4 billion plastic bottles being used annually. Alarmingly, the ultimate destination of this waste is the ocean, causing a detrimental impact on marine life not just in the UAE, but across the entire Gulf region. Last year, Dubai officials also declared that nine in 10 turtles found dead had plastic in their stomachs . Based on all this alarming data, the RPE program was introduced to tackle this issue. The objective of the RPE program is to create a distinctive marketplace where recycled plastic materials can be bought and sold. By encouraging individuals and businesses to recycle their plastic waste, the program aims to divert plastic from landfills and incineration while promoting the utilization of recycled plastic in the manufacturing of new products. Through this initiative, the UAE seeks to establish an efficient and effective recycling system that will substantially reduce marine debris in the long term. One would ask, what role do marine life conservation organisations play to reinforce such programs? Let me tell you.  

The UAE is located at the convergence of several ocean currents including the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf and the cooler waters of the Gulf of Oman. Additionally, the region is also influenced by the Indian Ocean monsoon system. These factors create complex circulation patterns that bring together floating debris from various sources, both local and international, thus posing significant threats to marine life such as damaging fragile coastal habitats including coral reefs and seagrass meadows, and impacting biodiversity and the overall health of the marine ecosystem. 

Alarmingly, accumulated marine debris has far-reaching economic consequences that the nation is proudly recognising the significance of. The UAE is a popular tourist destination, famous for its clean beaches and coastal attractions that are perfect for diving, and stockpiles of marine debris can have a detrimental impact on tourism, resulting in potential revenue losses within the hospitality sector. 

In line with this, marine conservation organisations such as Azraq, in partnership with the UAE government are continuously employing paramount efforts to mitigate the environmental and economic consequences of marine debris, implementing proactive measures such as promoting responsible waste management practices, enhancing recycling systems, applying strict regulations on waste disposal methods, and raising overall public awareness through various initiatives such as beach clean ups and educational workshops to mention a few. In 2022, we at Azraq managed to plant 1,116 mangrove saplings in an attempt to regenerate local areas. This aided in reducing the amount of carbon dioxide generated by 320 Kg.

We’re proud to also mention that from 29 January 2023 until 10 May 10 2023, Azraq launched a Marine Debris Free Oceans initiative dedicated to collecting and removing marine debris from the coasts of the UAE. Over the course of 102 days, our team of dedicated members and volunteers managed to collect an impressive total of 174.37 kg of marine debris. This averages out to approximately 11.62 kg per week, reflecting a significant amount of waste that would have otherwise posed a threat to the delicate marine ecosystems. Azraq’s Marine Debris Free Oceans campaign is aimed at mobilising action, promoting sustainable practices, and advocating for policy changes that benefit the environment, economy, and community.

With the UAE’s focus on a circular economy, we at Azraq actively bring together volunteers, communities, and entities to keep UAE beaches and waterways clean. Our efforts produce valuable data, raise awareness about marine pollution, guide sustainability initiatives, and inform policymakers.

The UAE’s Rebound Plastic Exchange program is a significant step toward protecting the environment and fostering a sustainable future. Through this program, the UAE aims to restore the marine ecosystem by establishing an efficient and effective recycling system. The ultimate goal is to significantly reduce marine debris in the long term. Safeguarding marine life requires collective action, and the UAE’s initiatives serve as a shining example for the rest of the world to follow. By prioritizing sustainability and nurturing partnerships between government, businesses, and non-profit organizations, we can forge a path toward a cleaner, greener, and more sustainable future. Furthermore, it is our hope that other countries will replicate this program to ensure that the entire Gulf region remains plastic-free.

About Azraq:

Azraq is a volunteer-run not-for-profit entity registered with the Community Development Authority in the UAE. Its purpose is to gather communities from across the UAE and inspire them to make positive changes that protect the well-being of our oceans.  Born in 2018, the organization aims to achieve cleaner and healthier oceans through initiatives such as coral surveys, mangrove planting and coastal & ocean clean-ups. It also aims to raise awareness of issues impacting the marine environment, and the life within it through educational campaigns and social media communications.