Plastic Flood: Waste and Privilege in the Kingdom

I have spent most of my life thinking that America was the most over-privileged, selfish and wasteful country on the planet, but I’m starting to wonder if this assumption needs to be revisited. Let me disclaimer here, I am an American. I’ve witnessed a lot of waste in my home country; excess packaging, people who buy too much and throw the “extra” away, throwing away things that are slightly less than perfect including food, clothes and electronics that could easily be fixed or refurbished into usable goods.

I’m lucky to have my home base in the PNW (Pacific Northwest) where recycling and composting, carrying our own reusable grocery bags and donating anything still usable is a base part of the culture. It’s actually illegal to use plastic grocery bags inside the city of Seattle, and Portland is creating packaging free grocery markets.

When travelling back East to visit my family, I am shocked at the use of plastic bags (or any bag) for something that could easily be carried, and always have to be on the alert to stop the clerks from bagging. I also get funny looks for my cloth bags.

But nothing in America prepared me for the waste I’m observing here in Saudi.

The grocery stores here (and even the retail shops) have an inordinate fixation on infinite plastic bags. I go shopping once or twice a week because I’m one person and my fridge is tiny, plus I’m usually walking my haul back due to the driving ban. But even one tiny shopping trip can result in as many as 12 plastic bags entering my home.

First, all the produce must be weighed and priced at a separate produce counter. So if I want apples, bananas, oranges, tomatoes, mint, and onions (a fairly standard list) that’s 6 plastic bags, one for each type of produce. Some vegetables are pre-packed and already priced but they’re in huge Styrofoam containers covered in plastic wrap.

There was a similar policy in China of weighing and pricing produce and deli items before one gets to checkout, but they used very thin plastic bags, and very minimally. This was probably a result of economic restriction than a social desire to reduce waste, since China still produces a huge amount of garbage, but for them it is a matter of a 1.3 billion person population.

Once you get to the checkout, the bagger will put only one or two items in each grocery bag. And these aren’t small bags, they’re actually a little bigger than the standard American grocery bag, made of a pretty tough plastic. So I’m stuck walking out with another 5-7 bags, on top of the 6 I’ve already got my produce in.

If I manage to get to the store when its not crowded, and keep a close eye on the bagger, I can sometimes stop them. I use my backpack and cloth bags instead, but they absolutely think I’m crazy and often try to keep putting my groceries into plastic bags even while I’m loading up the cloth ones and waving them off.

But this is me, a single shopper, with a PNW mindset about bags and waste. One of my cupboards is already filled with plastic bags after only six weeks here, and I reuse the bags as garbage bags since they fit perfectly in my tiny bin.

Saudi families shop like a Costco trip every time I see them. They fill up the grocery carts and walk away with 20-30 bags that are each only 1/4 full.

When I go shopping in the mall, I’ll be given a huge durable plastic bag for even the tiniest item. I often try to prevent this, but I know it only makes a difference in my head, since no one else here will do the same.

When I went to the Home Center and got some items for the house, even large items like my new pillow were placed in giant plastic bags (even though it was already in a plastic wrapping that had a built in handle) and loaded up on a trolley by a porter to be taken to the van before I could intervene.

And there’s no recycling. Anywhere. All these plastic bags (not even counting the water bottles and pop cans), are just building up into a massive plastic flood.

Oil is so cheap here, so plentiful, that the concept of resource management or conservation is just entirely foreign. On top of this, they aren’t in any danger of loosing arable land to waste dumps because the vast majority of the land mass here is desert. And when the plastic flood gets too big, the solution seems to be fire.

Driving (ok, riding) home from work one day, I saw a huge plume of dark black smoke billowing up on the horizon. I asked the other teachers in the car what they thought it was, and I was told it was burning garbage. Such plumes of black garbage smoke are sadly not an uncommon sight.

All I can do is keep fighting to refuse plastic bags, and try to stick to my own principles of minimal waste, but it feels even less effectual here than it did in the US. Moreover, I know that the industrial waste in the US is orders of magnitude larger than the individual waste, and if that is a reflection of cultural values then I am horrified by what the industrial waste here must be.

So given all of the global chatter about climate change and sustainability, the criticisms to China and India as developing nations needing to curb their waste, why is no one calling for Saudi Arabia to reduce, recycle, reuse? Is it because at only 29 million people, the footprint is still too small? Or is this another way that wealth (oil) privilege can be seen on the global scale?

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