PLANTING THE GREEN MESSAGE

By: Siddharth Premkumar

The first time Minke Gommer went to a supermarket in Muscat, she wasn’t just spoilt for choice. She had a very real dilemma on her hands. Literally.

“They had packed our shopping into six plastic bags,” said Minke, who had only ever donated plastic bags to the supermarkets in her native Holland, not taken them home. “I grew up with the idea that you take your plastic waste to the store and get money for it.”

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“And you would have to pay for any plastic bags you do take,” added Marleen Fleers. “Here, everything is in plastic. It was really strange for us.”

Less of a surprise was where those bags end up. “All over the place. A lot of times people just throw their plastic anywhere – the beach, the street and in the wadis. Even at the turtle beach reserve in Sur, there was so much plastic. It’s so dangerous for the animals,” Marleen said.

“It’s such a shame because Oman is so beautiful.”

So, when their host, AIESEC’s Muscat chapter rolled out the Go Green project, the fourth installment of its year-old Green Oman initiative, in July, Minke, Marleen and their fellow Dutch exchange interns knew they had to be a part of it.

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Over the past two months, a core team of 12 ‘AIESECers’ – with members drawn also from Serbia, Bahrain and, of course, Oman – had worked towards spreading awareness about the need to reduce and re-use plastic, and brainstorming practical methods to mitigate its harmful effects on the environment.

Go Green, and its catchy slogan “Recycle Plastic; Feel Fantastic”, came to a close last week, after nearly six weeks of beach and public space cleaning efforts, plastic bottle and bag collection drives, public awareness programmes, presentations and exhibitions.

“Over 700 plastic bottles were collected by the end,” Mohammed al Attar, part of the team’s six-member strong Omani contingent, said. “Besides wadi clean-ups, we went to three beaches; from Shatti al Qurum to Jawarhat al Shatti and Azaiba. We had a local company collect all the plastic we picked up for recycling.”

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“Equally important was to go talk to people about the effects of plastics,” he added. “So, while half of us would go pick bottles, bags and bottle caps, the rest would reach out to the people there. But the Azaiba beach was the dirtiest, so we did more cleaning than awareness there.”

Hassan al Balushi remembered the appreciation that came their way. “People would tell us it’s a really good thing we are doing. Some people even came to help pick things up. Especially little kids, which was really encouraging,” he said.

The need to get the message out across age groups had been identified early and addressed with child- and family-friendly exercises and displays at malls across the city. And in addition to stalls and collection bins, the team imparted some uncomplicated recycling know-how to impressionable young minds. How something as ‘useless’ as a bottle could be worthwhile.

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Besides the standard reclamation plastic pencil case design, Susan Brand showed how an empty bottle could make for an effective maraca. “Just fill the bottle with different materials like corn or beads and the children can have fun coaxing rattles out of them,” she said. “The idea was to show that you could have a lot of fun with plastic.”

Alexandra Belovanovic, on exchange from Serbia, helped fashion makeshift plant pots out of the bottles. “The bottom half of a cut bottle can be used to store seeds and soil for a short term,” she said. “(If cared for) The seeds will survive in the plastic till the plant outgrows it.”

The potted plant is a particular favourite with children, said al Attar. “From previous events, we have seen that kids do become attached to their plants and take care of them.”

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Which sits well with their parents too, said Ahmed al Zadjali. “The parents were very enthusiastic and very interested. Many said they wanted their children to learn how to reuse plastic because it would affect their futures. Some wanted to join up. Others said they’d tell friends and families,” he said.

“A lot of people have also come up with ideas to change things. Even small ideas like re-using or not using plastic bags,” added Attar. “People were interested, but it’s also new for them. If you don’t grow up with these ideas, it’s more difficult to believe they are practical.”

It is an incredulity mirrored by the exchange students, most of whom had known no other ‘normal’ than the institutionalised recycling of plastic waste.

But attitudes to recycling in Oman and elsewhere may not be as worlds apart as all that. If such small stirrings as having 70 students joining the recycling-themed art retreat that brought Go Green to a close are an indication, they just may be converging. Green Oman’s next project, in December, will pick up from where this one left off.

SOURCE: MUSCAT DAILY