Addressing single-use plastic bags' challenges: a Tunisian story

Thursday 24 November 2022

COP27 negotiations must reconcile demand for action while progressing synergies across all pillars of sustainable development. MedWaves showcases stories from the ground, demonstrating the collective will to take action, drawing attention to what is working. Now more than ever, it is important to share practices and scale these solutions.

The challenges facing our global society are complex and multi-faceted. Addressing climate change cannot be complete without accounting for planetary pollution, especially plastic pollution. Reaching a solution is possible, yet requires taking responsibility and embracing a willingness to take action. We, as a collective, must look in the mirror and make the decision: “Let’s be responsible.” The government of Tunisia, with the EU-funded project Marine Litter Med, is working towards a systematic change that promotes sustainable consumption and production through its recent ban on single use plastic bags.

The Paris Agreement cannot be achieved without addressing plastic pollution. Greenhouse gases are emitted at every stage of the plastic life cycle: from fossil fuel extraction and transport, refining and manufacturing to the pollution found throughout the environment. MedWaves recognises this pressing global challenge, and works regionally to support real solutions with real people by advancing sustainable consumption and production (SCP).

Tunisians have been living the realities of plastic pollution. The golden beaches, sunny weather and rich culture have drawn tourists for decades. However, below the surface, plastic pollution is choking natural ecosystems. Every year, Tunisians use  tons of plastic per year. In June 2022, 21 beaches were deemed unfit for swimming by the Tunisian Ministry of Health.

Addressing plastic pollution challenges requires systematic transformation; a shift away from linear wasteful supply chains and the development of circular economies that support SCP. MedWaves, through the second phase of the EU-funded Marine Litter Med programme coordinated by UNEP/MAP, has provided direct assistance to the Ministry of Environment to reduce plastic pollution through a national ban[1] on plastic bags that entered into force in January 2021, as well as the necessary bylaws for effective implementation.


Empowering Change

Systematic transformation requires a multi-layered approach to support change. Marine Litter Med has worked through two phases of programming to initiate this level of change in Tunisia. Drawing on the expertise gathered from the production of the Guidelines to Tackle Single-Use Plastic Bags in the Mediterranean Region, and following the approach presented in the guidelines, the Ministry of Environment developed a Steering Committee to draw together both the private and public sectors.

Project Manager Pedro Fernández reflects: “for us, this was a matter of building trust with the Ministry of Environment.” These engagements fostered a sense of collaboration and support for the preparation of legal and technical framework for the banning the production, import, distribution and possession of plastic bags.

The engagement was critical in designing a system with the right technical, institutional and legislative structures to support a shift to SCP. One of the areas of discussion centred on what could replace the banned plastic bags? This opens the opportunity for the engagement of industry in the change, rather than alienating producers. MedWaves produced clear criteria for the reform of industrial norms regarding reusable plastic bags. The results were presented in a dedicated event in Tunis, 3rd October 2019 (Download the report of activities and national event.).

True success cannot rest on the shoulders of policy alone. People must be empowered to recognise how they have a choice, and what the impact will be from these decisions. MedWaves and Tunisian Minister of the Environment, Leila Chikhaoui Mahdaoui, launched the “Let’s be responsible” communication campaign in May 2022 to encourage environmentally responsible behaviours.

“This survey is very important for the Ministry because it informs on the perception of consumers and commercial facilities, and hence we can take actions accordingly.”

Leila Chikhaoui Mahdhaoui, Minister of the Environment, Tunisia

When we act together, we change together

Although great strides have been made in the adoption of the ban and awareness raising, there is much work remaining to achieve a systematic transformation. It is important to start, as Pedro Fernández has shared, “by focusing on the small things that can really make a difference, and most importantly to be coherent in reducing pollution.” Future activities will continue communication outreach, aim to support the development of controls to ensure adherence to the ban, and incubate circular economic activities among small to medium sized Tunisian entrepreneurs.

Marine Litter Med is part of a family of programmes and initiatives that support sustainable development in the Mediterranean region. The intentional progress gained through the work of Marine Litter Med can be shared with other partners, such as the EU-funded SwitchMed Programme, to continue the delivery of appropriate resources and support. According to Pedro Fernández, “this is a way to mobilise partner support for entrepreneurs such as seed funding. Clearly under the SwitchMed programme, we have many entrepreneurs that work in the topic of waste and were specifically on plastic waste and recycling, so this something we can create synergies on that, and that we have done in the past.”

Strengthening ties with policy makers through new concrete tools

MedWaves, as UNEP/MAP Regional Activity Centre for SCP acting under the Barcelona Convention, is in permanent contact with national public authorities, in particular with Ministries of Environment. As stated by Magali Outters, Team Leader of the Policy Area: “We have established long term relationships and respond to the policy needs and support knowledge exchange between countries involved in addressing similar challenges”.

This year, another step is taken to stimulate and maintain enabling environments for policy-making with the launch of the Switchers Policy Hub, a space for policy makers working for the transition towards a green and circular economy in the Mediterranean.

“Regarding the challenge of plastic pollution and marine litter, our priority is to support policy-makers in designing regulations to reduce Single-Use Plastics and their impact on the Environment and health. In order to do so, a first important step is to understand the situation regarding the production and consumption of SUPs at the national level, for example what is imported, exported, produced and consumed locally” adds Magali Outters. All this will support the best decisions in terms of policy options, and associated socio-economic impacts. Magali Outters concludes: “It is also important to take into account the informal sector, which is a reality in many countries with whom we are working. There is a need to ensure a just transition towards circular Economy”.




[1] Decrét gouvernemental n° 2020-32 du 16 janvier 2020, fixant les types de sacs en plastique dont la production, l’importation, la distribution et la détention sont interdites sur le marché intérieur.

About the Marine litter Med Project

The Marine Litter MED II project, funded by the European Commission, DG Environment (EC-DG ENV) , further supports the implementation of the updated Regional Plan on Marine Litter Management in the Mediterranean approved by COP 22 (Antalya, Türkiye, 7-10 December 2021) at national, sub-regional and regional level with a particular focus on southern Mediterranean countries namely Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. The project builds on the outcomes of the EU-funded Marine Litter MED project (2016-2019).
Marine Litter MED II is endowed with a budget of 1,28 million USD, including Mediterranean Trust Fund (MTF) in-kind contribution. It is executed for a duration of 36 months by the UNEP/MAP-Barcelona Convention Secretariat and MAP Components, namely MED POL, SCP/RAC, SPA/RAC and REMPEC, in line with their respective mandates and areas of expertise.