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Tunisia bans disposable plastic shopping bags

In an effort to reduce plastic waste, shoppers will no longer be able to get single-use bags at supermarkets.

If you happen to be shopping for groceries in Tunisia, you won’t be able to get a free, thin plastic bag in which to take home your purchases. As of 1 March 2017, single-use plastic bags have been banned in supermarkets, making it the first Arab nation to take such a step.

Every year, Tunisians use one billion plastic bags, generating 10,000 tons of waste. Supermarkets hand out roughly one third of those (315 million). Removing those bags from the consumer cycle will, hopefully, make a significant dent in that number.

Plastic bags have wreaked havoc on the environment in Tunisia, the same as everywhere else. They may be convenient for a few short minutes, but they live on for hundreds of years, leaching chemicals into the environment, clogging waterways, suffocating animals, getting tangled in trees, and creating unsightly pollution.

The Ministry of Local Affairs and Environment, influenced by environmental advocacy groups, signed an agreement with major supermarket chains, including Carrefour and Monoprix. It outlined a plan to phase out the manufacture and use of bags in such a way that would not harm businesses or inconvenience shoppers. The Arab Weekly cites Tunisian Environment Minister, Riadh Mouakher:

“Our negotiations with supermarket managers did not take much time. In fact, they said yes to our proposal in record time. Citizens will have to change their habits and become aware of the importance of preserving the environment."

Factories that make single-use disposable bags will be transitioned to manufacturing heavier-duty plastic bags (more than 50 microns). These will be sold in supermarkets, as opposed to being handed out for free, as well as cloth bags. The hope is that the cost will incentivize shoppers to bring reusable bags or traditional Tunisian baskets called “koffa” (pictured below) that were once used for shopping. The idea behind heavier plastic is that it does not blow around as much as thin plastic, can be reused many times, and is not often mistaken for food by animals.

© Zero Waste Tunisia/Facebook — A ‘koffa’ is a traditional basket used for shopping

While most people recognize the importance of taking a stance against single-use plastics, some are frustrated by the plan’s inconsistency: the ban does not affect small retailers or produce stands. Others accuse supermarkets of making a profit by selling heavier plastic bags. Adnen Ben Haj, president and founder of the Association Tunisienne pour la Nature et Développement Durable, is happy about the ban, but he points out that many Tunisian households don’t even recycle:

“Compared to other countries, I think the waste management situation in Tunisia lacks efficient management. Some of the biggest problems are the misplacement of trash cans and ineffective sorting on all levels.”

While Tunisia’s environmental policies may leave much to be desired (a common problem in most nations, I’d say), it’s still wonderful to see this ban take effect. At the very least, it sends a powerful message to Tunisians and others around the world that there are alternative ways of moving our purchases around – ways that do not contaminate or scar the planet indefinitely.