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Can the Middle East end plastic pollution anytime soon?

Experts say the region faces several challenges, such as underdeveloped recycling infrastructure, regulatory gaps, and economic dependencies

Can the Middle East end plastic pollution anytime soon?
[Source photo: Krishna Prasad/Fast Company Middle East]

Climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and chronic pollution—plastic contributes to the world’s three greatest global environmental crises. 

Like any other region, the Middle East’s economy has been dependent on the production and usage of plastic products. Over the years, however, it has witnessed an alarming increase in plastic pollution due to increasing consumerism and inadequate waste management and recycling facilities. Only 6% of all plastic produced is recycled.

According to the World Bank, the average resident contributes more than 6 kilograms of plastic waste to the region’s seas each year, which is the highest level globally.

“Plastic pollution is a tremendous problem because plastic doesn’t just ‘go away.’ It sticks around, taking hundreds of years to degrade,” says Marina Antonopoulou, Chief Conservation Officer at Emirates Nature-WWF.

Most of it, particularly single-use plastic, leaks into nature outside our landfills, affecting ecosystems across land and water.

“More than 8 million metric tons of plastics and debris enter our oceans yearly. In the Gulf region, recent research has confirmed that marine debris, including plastic pollution and abandoned fishing traps pose a risk to regional populations of sea turtles,” adds Antonopoulou.

The effects of plastic pollution on human health are also becoming clearer. Plastic traces have been found in our blood and the human placenta, and lung tissue. They are known to increase the risk of health conditions, including cancer and diabetes.

“The Middle East faces several challenges in cutting plastic pollution,” says Dr. Yahya Anouti, PwC Middle East Sustainability leader. “There is a lack of mature facilities and systems to efficiently recycle plastic waste, and inconsistent or insufficient regulatory frameworks hinder the effective management of plastic pollution. Many regional economies heavily rely on the petrochemical industry, making the transition from plastic production complex.”


However, to address the challenges, the region has made strides through regional cooperation and policy initiatives. For example, the ASEAN Regional Action Plan has helped member states harmonize their efforts to tackle plastic pollution through measures like extended producer responsibility and innovative waste management practices.

The UAE has banned all single-use bags, and starting next year, the ban will extend to plastic cups, plates, straws, and around 16 other items.  

“The Middle East plays a significant role in global initiatives due to the high waste per capita and waste generation,” says Khalil Ramadi, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at NYUAD. “The UAE’s new federal law on integrated waste management demonstrates a commitment to addressing waste issues.”

Ironically, and illustrative of how daunting the challenge is, not many countries, including Saudi Arabia, have outright banned plastic products, although governments are increasingly aware of the need to develop waste management legislation and policies that use circular economy approaches to target plastic pollution. 

Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, and Oman have made some progress on the plastic ban journey, but challenges persist.


More than banning single-use plastic is required. The plastics economy is a highly complex system. Introducing a new policy in one part can lead to unexpected changes in other parts. Therefore, a variety of supporting interventions will likely be necessary.

Experts say the most effective scenario in cutting plastic pollution is a combination of policy and technical innovation measures.

“Policy and innovation are key levers to address the challenge of plastic pollution. It requires action at a global scale since the impact of plastic waste is transboundary,” says Antonopoulou.

There are examples of homegrown technologies addressing plastic pollution as well. “Companies are developing state-of-the-art recycling processes that can handle complex plastic waste and convert it into reusable materials; innovators are creating biodegradable plastic alternatives; and startups are focusing on creating closed-loop systems where plastic waste is continually reused and recycled, minimizing the need for new plastic production,” says Dr. Anouti.

A great example of innovation in the region is the Sharjah Waste to Energy plant, a joint venture between Beeah Group and Masdar. The plant converts non-recyclable waste into energy, reducing plastic waste sent to landfills. 

The collection, recycling, and disposal of plastic will only prevail as a solution to the extent that countries improve socio-economically. 

Clearly, without radical change, even measures such as ramping up recycling, disposing of plastic waste by incineration plants, or converting plastic waste into energy would still leave residual pollution in 2040.

Of the potential mechanisms for tackling plastic pollution, a cap on plastic production is crucial. This has been considered globally at the UN talks, with the aim of developing an internationally legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution. 

This year, an international agreement to end plastic pollution will be sealed in Busan, South Korea. At the penultimate round of negotiations, held in Ottawa, Canada, Rwanda, and Peru, a target was proposed to cut the weight of primary plastics produced worldwide by 40% by 2040, compared with 2025.

However, Ramadi says cutting plastic production in half is not a solution “because the transition to other materials needs to be smooth enough that we would not end up with another material that’s also hard to recycle. For example, there’s a shift towards using glass bottles, but without the proper recycling facilities, we could end up with a similar issue with glass.”

Dr. Anouti says reducing production must be part of a broader, integrated approach that includes regulatory measures, innovation in materials, and holistic improvements in waste management practices.

Alternatives to plastics must be sought. “R&D on technical innovation can yield methods to recycle better, break down plastics, and give us new material alternatives,” says Ramadi.

It’s important to focus on tackling plastic pollution at its source. There is compelling evidence that only a reduction in primary plastic polymer production, or virgin plastic, will deliver a substantive cut in plastic pollution.

Experts say simplifying the types of polymers used in packaging so that just a few are in circulation would make recycling more effective.

Additionally, Ramadi says packaging is a major contributor to plastic waste generation, and alternative materials like paper, glass, and biodegradable materials must be considered.

“In our lab, we are leading efforts to reduce plastic waste by finding innovative approaches for plastic recycling. These approaches aim to convert plastic waste into highly valuable products that would incentivize governments and societies even further towards allocating different solutions.”


Antonopoulou says accelerating solutions requires a scalable approach. The UAE Circular Economy Policy addresses multiple issues, including plastic waste.  

According to experts, eliminating the negative impacts of plastic and transitioning towards a circular model is a multi-faceted issue and requires a multi-stakeholder approach. “It would require a circular model to be considered early in the product design stage by producers, harmonization of policies and regulations, broad availability of sustainable options,” Antonopoulou adds. 

Initiatives such as the Circular Packaging Association are launched to enhance producer responsibility and transform the UAE’s packaging value chain. 

“We must step away from today’s ‘throw-away’ culture and move towards a more sustainable circular economy,” says Antonopoulou.

In most countries in the region, while a partial ban has compelled institutions, companies, and supermarkets to substitute single-use plastic bags with biodegradable bags, it has yet to permeate micro-level businesses.

The real challenge, however, lies in ensuring the effective enforcement of laws, especially among the small-scale retail sector, and promoting a broader culture of sustainability among the public.

“With an entire generation growing up with plastic and plastic-based products, it would take mass awareness on how exacerbated the problem is,” adds Ramadi. 

Reducing plastic production would require significant shifts in our lifestyles. It could entail major changes in consumer behavior, product design, delivery methods, etc.

“The public is becoming aware …they are opting out from single-use plastic packaging when it’s offered,” says Antonopoulou.

There is precedent for such a shift,  Ramadi adds. “For example, the world successfully phased out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to protect the earth’s ozone layer. Doing so requires extensive international coordination and innovation in developing technologies.”

No matter the degree, pathway, and pace of plastic production cuts, a fundamental change in our relationship with plastic is necessary.

Dr. Anouti says the Middle East is making strides, but more comprehensive and cohesive strategies are still needed. “Efforts are underway, but gaps remain in policy enforcement and adopting new technologies. More regional collaboration and investment in sustainable infrastructure are needed to match the pace of plastic waste generation and effectively reduce pollution.”

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Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is the Editor at Fast Company Middle East. She is interested in ideas and culture and cover stories ranging from films and food to startups and technology. She was a Forbes Asia contributor and previously worked at Gulf News and Times Of India. More