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The National Bird of Egypt: The Plastic Bag

The first challenge to reducing plastic is just saying no
By Bernadette Simpson 


Once, I asked a student to make a list of things that fly. The #1 item on his list? Plastic bags. Not exactly the answer I was expecting, but taking a look around the city of Cairo, how could I argue? Plastic bags are so often seen flying through the air that they are sometimes referred to as the “National Bird of Egypt.”

These ugly plastic bags are everywhere in Dahab too, blown by the wind into our neighborhoods, deserts and seas. The stomped-on, driven-over, goat-munched bags are ground into the unpaved roads creating the most unattractive of streets. But the problem is not just one of aesthetics. Plastic bags break down into smaller and smaller pieces and are eaten by a range of animals. To make matters worse, these small pieces of plastic attract and absorb toxic chemicals in our environment. The animals that eat this plastic are getting an extra dose of poison.

In 2006, Greenpeace reported that “267 species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of ocean plastic debris including seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, whales and fish.” According to Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, better know as HEPCA, 70% of dead sea turtles in the Egyptian Red Sea in 2006 most likely died as result of consuming plastics.

The plastic litter in the sea also has a negative effect on human health as we then consume contaminated fish. Research from the UAE shows that it’s not just marine animals suffering from plastic pollution. Camels, sheep, goats, and gazelles are just some of the desert animals dying each year from eating plastic.

Recycling these bags is very expensive and few plants take on the challenge. Here in Dahab, plastic bags are not collected for recycling. Perhaps the story is different in Cairo.  Either way, recycling plastic bags will never stop the problem completely.

The first step in cutting back on the number of plastic bags in the environment is to REFUSE the bags when they are offered to you at shops, and, of course, bring your own REUSABLE bags instead.

Easier said than done, especially here in Egypt, where providing plastic bags to customers is often seen as a necessity, as something store owners must do to show their appreciation. There also seems to be a mindset here that you couldn’t possibly NOT have a bag for your goods, you couldn’t possibly walk down the street with your purchases in your hands for all the world to see.

And so refusing plastic bags can actually become a battle of wills. Yours – to not accept the bag – and theirs – to provide a service to their customers. My husband and I have been refusing plastic bags for several years now and have fought – and won! – most of these battles. It’s not uncommon to have to say, “No, thank you, I don’t want the bag” several times before the clerks will stop insisting that you accept the bag. While in the process of refusing bags, my husband – a fluent Arabic speaker – often takes the time to explain why we are refusing the bags – and some clerks listen with interest and even ask questions to enhance their own understanding of environmental issues. These are the good days.

And then there are days like the one when the clerk ripped the plastic bag off its hook before I could say no and then, after I managed to tell them that I didn’t need a bag, he proceeded to throw the never-used plastic bag into the rubbish bin. As I stared at him in disbelief, my husband explained the reason for our refusal, while the clerk explained that he had to throw the bag away because he had already ripped it off. Sigh.

It may take some time for the store clerks to get used to not giving customers bags, but if you revisit the same shop enough times and “stick to your guns” as we say in English, the clerks will recognize you and accept what they may see as a quirky habit. This has certainly been the case with our favorite food shop here in Dahab. The clerks see us coming and they know. They may sometimes double-check, “No plastic bag, sa7?” Sa7. And we smile at each other as I point to the reusable bag in my hand.

So, don’t give up! Always refuse with a smile on your face and be persistent, because REFUSING is only half the battle. We also need to be ready with own REUSABLE bags. This takes practice to remember, a lot of repetition before it becomes habit.

Here are some tips about REUSABLE bags from Beth Terry’s book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too:

  • You don’t have to buy new bags. Use the bags you already have: backpacks, rucksacks, purses, the baskets on your bicycles. (We have one old backpack dedicated to shopping. I also use my purse if I’m only buying a few small items.)
  • Reuse the plastic bags you already have. Give them a rinse if needed between uses.
  • If you need to buy reusable shopping bags, try to buy used bags.
  • If you can’t buy used bags, try your hand at making your own out of old t-shirts. Read instructions here.
  • If you need to buy new bags, buy ones made from cotton. Avoid the polypropylene bags that look like fabric; they are actually made from plastic. They are not washable and they fall apart quickly.
  • Put some reusable bags in easy-find-places places that help you remember them. Keep some next to your wallet or keys. Stuff some in your purse. Tie some to your bike handles. Put a few in the glove compartment of your car.
  • If you forget your own bags and you aren’t purchasing too many items, try to just carry them in your hands. (My husband has, on more than one occasion, taken the cap off his head and filled it with eggs when we have forgotten our bags.)
  • Remember to wash your cloth bags.

Do you carry your own reusable bags? What’s your favorite type to use? How do you help yourself remember your bags? Have any tips of your own to share?


Refuse ~ Reduce ~ Reuse ~ Recycle


Bernadette Simpson is the author of the field guide Wandering through Wadis: A nature-lover’s guide to the flora of South Sinai and An ABC Escapade through Egypt. To learn more about her campaign to reduce disposable plastic, visit:

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