Foodways: Thinking about Uses of Plastic Bags and Bottles in Dhofar

In a previous essay [ Foodways: Cultural Issues Pertaining to Litter ] I talked about some issues pertaining to litter. I would like to expand on these reflections by discussing the use of plastic bags and plastic bottles.

Decreasing the use of plastics is a worthy goal and I believe that can effectively happen when the reasons for why and methods of how people use plastic products is investigated in terms of the cultural context. In my opinion, to find replacements that will be widely adopted, it needs to be clear which specific qualities are important. Thus, the substitutes for plastic bags and bottles need to meet cultural needs, as well as environmental needs.

Cultural Understandings of Plastic Usage: Plastic Bags

1 – anything given to another person should be in a bag, not put directly into someone’s hand

There is a cultural understanding that objects should be transferred in some sort of package, never passed by hand.

2 – adults seldom carry large bags and/ or anything on their shoulders

Only schoolchildren wear backpacks. It is not common for grown-up men to bear anything on their shoulders. Some female college students will carry a small rectangular bag on their shoulder, but only within the campus area. In a mall or public place, goods are carried by hand in bags.

3 – foodstuffs, including raw meat and fresh fish, are often distributed among relatives and friends

As I have discussed in my food research, many Dhofaris give extra or purpose-bought food for others. This is almost always handed over in plastics bags. For example, it is perceived as cleaner and easier to give fish and pieces of meat in plastic bags. If this was given in a dish or pot, it would need to be cleaned and returned. Also, giving food in a dish might result in spillage whereas plastic bags can be tied shut.

4 – accessibility of paper bags

Small paper bags, often printed with a store’s name or a decorative design, are common and can be used for transporting some items such as limes, books, dhobes and bukhoor. Thus there is a lot of re-use of printed paper bags with short handles which are bought for gift-giving and/or given away by stores. However, these bags usually only circulate among women as they often found in perfume/ make-up stores and men will not usually buy decorated gift bags.

4 – it is common to give food and unwanted supplies to expat laborers who travel by bike

In addition to Dhofaris giving food stuffs to family and neighbors, they often give left-over food to expat workers. As these laborers usually travel by bikes which do not have panniers, they need a bag which will easily fit over their handlebars.

For example, I sometimes buy packages of cookies for the man who cleans my car. I have to put them in a plastic bag so that he can transport the cookies home. The shopping bags for sale in the large grocery store are too large and unwieldy to be hooked over handle bars and bikes usually do not have a flat rack behind the seat.

5 –  issues of privacy/ safety/ smell

In some cultures, small, mesh/  jute/ string bags are used for everyday carrying. But open-weave bags would not always work in Dhofar as there are cultural understandings of keeping goods private, i.e. not allowing everyone to see what you are transporting. For example, in large supermarkets, there is always a pile of small plastic bags near the sanitary supplies so women can put what they are buying into a plastic bag, then set it in their shopping cart. As in many aspects of Dhofari life, people want to keep their private life private.

Another concern is that Dhofar has three months of drizzle during the khareef (monsoon) and frequent wind/sand storms in winter. Moving anything in an open-weave bag could result in the contents being splashed with mud or covered in sand.

Lastly, bad smells are perceived as very negative. Sometimes meat or fish bought at the souq is put in a plastic bag and tied the rear-bumper of the car to be taken home because no one wants the smell to permeate the car.

To me, thinking about decreasing the use of plastic bags means looking for solutions which fit within the culture. For example, one use of plastic bags among fishermen is to put pieces of sardines in a plastic bag with sand and place this within a fish box (metal fish trap which sits on the bottle of the ocean). One fisherman I know did this for years as the sand keeps the sardines at the bottom of the trap, allowing the scent of the fish to mix slowly with the water to attract larger fish. Last year, he decided to re-think this usage and now uses a sharp, large needle to pierce a group of sardines with fishing line into a circle (looking like a necklace of sardines) which is tied to the side of trap. This keeps the sardine in the trap and allows the water to carry the scent, without the plastic bag.

Small, plain brown paper bags with handles could be used in some circumstances instead of plastic bags and it might make sense to have them widely available. Another idea might be to have large stores sell or give away sturdy, long-use shopping bags which are smaller than the ones currently found. The smaller bag might also have a wide flap which could be placed over the opening (to keep what is inside clean) or simply left hanging inside the bag when not needed.

Cultural Understandings of Plastic Usage: Plastic Bottles

* hosts should give guest unopened bottles of drinks

Fresh fruit juice can be brought out for guests in (preferably clear glass) pitchers but usually water and all other beverages are served in individual bottles to be opened by the person who will drink. At restaurants, soda and water are brought to the table in closed bottles, opened and poured in front of customers; the only place you can get a pre-poured soda is at fast-food restaurants.

Many Dhofaris have a “bubbler” (a large, plastic jug of water upended into a stand; to get a glass of water, you push a small lever – some bubblers will heat or cool the water). Water jugs can be bought at stores but big families usually have a regular delivery service in which full ones are dropped off and used ones picked up. It is not common to have a bubbler in the majlis or salle; they are usually found in the kitchen.

* it’s not easy to find potable water to refill a thermos/ water bottle

In some cultures, many people carry water bottles with them, but in Dhofar it is not always easy to find potable water through water fountains. Most drinking water is carried in plastic bottles.

*a bottle of water is a kind of currency

I don’t use small bottles of water for drinking but I always have a 12-pack at home and my office to give away. At work I hand them out to the man who repairs the copy machine, the FedEx delivery guy, the worker who comes to fix the AC and the cleaner. At home I give them to the repairmen. As they don’t carry water bottles and it’s often over 85 degrees, a plastic bottle of water is a welcomed gift.

To me, thinking about how to lessen the use of plastic bottles means thinking about practical measures that would work within a Dhofari context. For example, an expat faulted me for giving away plastic bottles of water but the alternatives would be handing over a glass of water to be drunk immediately or giving a thermos full of water, which might cause the recipient to wonder how fresh the water was. I could get a bubbler in my office, hand the worker a thermos and let them fill it themselves, but then they would have to carry around the thermos. The best option is the most expensive: I would need a supply of thermoses with carrying straps and a bubbler. And not everyone has time and easy access to a sink and soap to clean the thermos. The safety issue is paramount – hot weather and high humidity can mean water becoming contaminated quickly.

Some milk is sold in cardboard containers; that is one method that might be tried for water and juice. Another idea might be for water and juice to be sold in small glass bottles which could be delivered to houses and restaurants in flat; then the empties could be picked up, washed by the company and reused.