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The Maldives Plastic Warriors – ‘Plastic Noon Gotheh’

Is it possible to live without plastic?

This is the urgent question that Plastic Noon Gotheh (a way without plastic) is prepared to tackle head-on.  It firmly advocates a life without plastic – at least single-use plastics. “We are a group of like-minded people who are advocating alternatives to plastic. We want to reduce the usage or even ban single-use plastics in the Maldives,” says Hudha Ahmed, the coordinator for PNG.

PNG came into being in June 2018, as a project.

“[The] UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] has a Global Environment Facility [GEF]’s Small Grants Programme for NGOs that tackle environmental issues, so we partnered with [the] Maldives Authentic Crafts Cooperative Society (MACCS) and started this project to reduce the usage of plastic bags.”

Hudha points out that they collaborated with MACCS as they share the same philosophy. “Even if they are a crafts cooperative they always do things with an environmental perspective.”

The PNG page on Facebook is a mix of hard facts about the plastic problem, anti-plastic initiatives and proposals for alternatives to plastic. The PNG’s bite-sized posts of little graphic drawings drive home points such as how by using a reusable bag a person can forgo at least 16 bags monthly.

In a country where it’s second nature to be handed a plastic bag for the tiniest purchase and where reusable bags are practically non-existent, the PNG faces an uphill battle.

Mom-and-pop stores

“People often ask us why it’s called Plastic Noon Gotheh. It’s because what we want is a behaviour change also,” says Hudha. “And what better place to start than with corner shops.”

Corner shops, the local equivalent of a mom-and-pop stores, cater to the neighbourhood, stocking everything from vegetables to slippers.

MACCS, which runs the PNG project, gave 300 reusable bags to 10 shops in Malé to be distributed among their customers.

Mohamed Adam and his wife run Maith, one of the shops that participated in the project. “We distributed the bags to a select few regular customers, selecting those who were more likely to use them,” says Adam. Only one customer reused the bag. “She brought the bag daily and took it with her when she shopped elsewhere also.”

Sometimes, however, the conscientious customer would put a plastic bag inside her reusable bag. “She had a valid reason for it – it was for those times she needed to keep things separate like chemicals from food.”

Adam’s observations show the practical problems, as well as the social minefields, that need to be crossed in order to get people to use reusable bags in a place where even colour can be a problem.

“One woman didn’t want to be seen around town with a yellow bag.” Adam says he didn’t pay attention to colours when distributing the bags. “The bag I gave her was yellow. It seems she and her husband hated the ruling MDP, whose colour is yellow.”

He asked her to return the bag so he could find someone who supported the party and give it to them. “She never brought the bag back.”

He laments the general lack of awareness about the problem of plastic pollution and says, “I have even seen one of those reusable bags, full of rubbish, left by the roadside for the binmen.”

Adam says children are more attuned to the dangers of plastic in the environment than adults. “I have another shop near Rasfannu beach. We get a lot of children in that shop. Most children refuse a bag but the parents overrule them, so maybe schools and the government should now concentrate on the parents.”

He says people ask for a plastic bag even when they buy a Milo snack that is going to be eaten at the beach.

When asked to breakdown by gender demand for single-use plastics, Adam says women are more likely to ask for a plastic bag than men.

Hudha says they are learning as they go and realised quite early on that distributing bags via shops doesn’t really work. “So instead of rushing to distribute bags, we are trying to see how best we can introduce this. As long as plastic bags are available in other shops, shopkeepers will be afraid their customers will desert them if they withhold plastic bags.”

Hudha feels that to make a real change, a ban would have to go hand in hand with a push to change habits.

Adam is of the same opinion. As a shopkeeper, he says he doesn’t really have the time to engage with the public as people are always rushing somewhere or there are others waiting in line to be served. “The president banned plastic water bottles in his office, but you turn on the TV, you can see plastic bottles in parliament. During Ramadan, when we go to the mosque for breakfasting or Tharavees prayers, we get handed a plastic water bottle. The government or city council is permitting this to happen. If we can remove the constant plastic we see in front of our eyes maybe change will be easier.”

Meanwhile, a specialist grocer’s shop in Malé has quietly made the change to paper bags without waiting for a ban, albeit with a few hiccups. Though it has been well received, some customers complain that paper bags don’t hold frozen or heavy things as well as plastic bags. Discreet notices in the shop also encourage customers to bring their own shopping bags.

Recognition

One of the more disturbing posts of late on PNG’s Facebook page was the image of a plastic bag bearing the logo of the Environmental Protection Agency floating over a coral reef in the Maldives. The PNG has been calling on the EPA to stop endorsing these bags with their logo as they do not properly biodegrade in the oceans. “It’s highly misleading that these bags are good for the environment. Shops proudly show us these bags when we visit them.”

Hudha says that from what she understands the duty free status accorded to those who are importing these bags won’t be renewed again. “We are really pushing to end this practice.”

The PNG works on the ground to change habits, while at the same time calling on policymakers to make immediate and concrete changes to tackle the plastic issue.

But even when there is a will to tackle the plastic issue there are often practical problems, Hudha says.

“Reusable bags are not easily available in the Maldives; they have to be sourced.” The PNG has approached leading companies in the Maldives to figure out a way to source much needed reusable bags. For the moment the project is focused on Malé, though a lot of island councils have also approached the PNG for advice.

Inclusiveness

The PNG believes in working collectively with others. “We are building a large network, and work with lots of different groups, like Parley Maldives or Zero Waste Maldives. For example, if you [hold] an event, we might go and distribute reusable cups during the event. Then there is Parley Maldives, who will come at the end and collect any plastic that was used there.”

The PNG’s impressive social media campaign has made their hashtag so popular that it has even appeared on ballot papers where the name of a politician should have been. Their social media also acts as a point of dialogue. By talking to people on social media we do see that people want different bags for different purposes. And it seems that a foldable bag that fits in the hand is more popular then a big bag.

The PNG’s work has received international recognition. They were among nine projects globally chosen to be funded by the GEF’s Small Grants Programme and was featured in their publication Plastics and Circular Economy: Community Solutions. The chairperson of MACCS, Aminath Abdulla, represented the project in Washington, where she shared the PNG’s experience with reducing or banning plastics with attendees at the GEF Council Consultation with Civil Society Organisations in Washington, DC.

Through trial and error, the PNG seems committed to finding what works best to wean Maldivians off plastic bags. “We would like to see this become a movement that goes beyond this project,” says Hudha, adding that her long-term goal is to see Maldivians fully embrace the work of Plastic Noon Gotheh and the idea of a world without plastic.

Single use plastic bags with the Environmental Protection Agency of Maldives’ logo floating over a coral reef in the Maldives. It is now common knowledge that the so called biodegradable plastic does not biodegrade in the oceans. The EPA must stop this endorsement with their logo. Its highly misleading and does not motivate people to reduce their use of single use plastic. #PlasticNoonGotheh #beatsingleuseplastic #Maldives Video by Hassan Hameez

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Source URL:  Maldives Independent

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