Waste among riches

Dubai, it turns out, has masses of waste as well as masses of wealth. With a ‘zero waste to landfill’ target in place, Owen Dowsett wonders if wasteful Dubai will become history



What comes to mind when we think of Dubai? Unbridled opulence amidst searing heat? Islands shaped as palm trees nestled beneath the world’s tallest building? Vast shopping malls filled with expats and tourists? Perhaps, instead, an endless line of trucks waiting to deposit sewage at the Arab emirate’s main wastewater treatment plant. This was the image that went viral in 2009 after two workers recorded footage on the road to the Al Awir facility. And some suggested that maybe Dubai’s rapid development had, after all, gotten a little out of hand. It turned out that while the city’s shiny new buildings stretched up towards the stratosphere, and out towards the Persian Gulf, they were not necessarily connected to the municipal sewage system – hence sewage trucks queuing for 40 hours to empty waste from septic tanks. 

Most, if not all, of the city is now reportedly connected to the central sewage system, but the waste management challenges accompanying Dubai’s extraordinary rise are not limited to bodily excrement. It is estimated that in 2012, the amount of waste generated per capita stood at 2.5 tonnes (compared to less than half a tonne in the UK). In the same year, less than 14 per cent of the waste collected by one company was deemed recyclable. By some accounts, more than 80 per cent of the emirate’s waste is sent to landfill. The Al Qusaia landfill site, where 5,000 tonnes of waste is dumped every day, is expected to reach capacity within seven years. I could go on. 

Yet the image of Dubai struggling to manage its refuse may soon be one for the archives. The ‘Integrated Waste Management Master Plan’ (IWMMP) is an attempt by the Dubai Municipality to underpin the city’s future growth with an effective system for minimising waste. Launched by the Waste Management Department (WMD) in 2012, the IWMMP presents a vision of ‘zero waste to landfill’ by 2030. It’s ambitious for sure, but if anywhere can achieve such a transition, it is probably Dubai. 

Cue a rise in the landfill tariff and limiting landfill use to Dubai-registered vehicles. Cue restrictions on the import and manufacture of plastic bags. Cue more stringent waste management requirements for businesses and the trialling of new household waste collection services. As the need to minimise waste and maximise recycling is inculcated at household and business levels, the market for waste material is also maturing. There are now more than 25 recycling companies registered with the WMD and the range of materials that can be reprocessed is steadily increasing. 

But if the 2030 ‘zero waste to landfill’ target is to prove achievable, then the Emirates Environmental Group (EEG) will deserve much of the credit. Operating from Dubai, the EEG is an NGO that was set up to encourage more sustainable behaviour across the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Having helped to establish the group back in 1991, Habiba Al Marashi explains the reasoning behind it: “We established this organisation to ensure that what we have is well protected, well taken care of, and that we don’t face major disasters or hiccups in the future… This environmental group was set up to establish a partnership between an NGO and the private sector. The UAE is a tax-free country, so we believe firmly that the private sector should be more proactive and should play a bigger role in the society and should have more input in the society.”  

The responsible management of waste is given high priority by the EEG, but galvanising the UAE community is no easy task. “This is a multinational society”, says Al Marashi. “How do you build a community instead of silos where each nationality lives in its own boundaries and doesn’t integrate? Education is the main tool that we utilise. We have major educational programmes with schools all over the country and we have a wide network of member academic institutions whether universities or colleges or nurseries.”

The EEG also connects with households, businesses, waste producers and waste management companies. Building on its network, the group regularly organises waste collection campaigns and ‘action days’ to clean up litter and ensure that recyclable material ends up at reprocessing facilities (such as the ‘Clean up UAE’ days, pictured).

This article was taken from Issue 75

And it is clear they have some effect. Al Marashi tells me the EEG expects to have directly facilitated the collection of more than 25,000 kilogrammes of aluminium in 2013 alone. Nor are efforts limited to cans. Since inception, the group has progressively widened its remit to focus on more and more waste materials. After aluminium came paper. Then plastic. Then glass, batteries, printer toners, beverage cartons and, most recently, mobile phones. 

For each material, the EEG has had to adapt its strategy for spreading awareness of the need to reuse and recycle. “With each programme, you notice which are the major players”, concludes Al Marashi. “For paper, it’s the offices and the schools. And for toner cartridges, it’s the offices and the schools. But glass comes out of hotels and households. So, with each category, we have developed programmes that fit that particular sector of society. You learn to speak their language.”

While the voice of the EEG is loud and clear, further information about the IWMMP remains frustratingly elusive, with Dubai’s WMD saying very little on the topic since announcing its ambitions. Plans to open a major new landfill site early in 2014 certainly raise some questions over whether ‘zero waste to landfill’ is a genuine commitment. Still, so long as recycling continues to gather pace through community efforts, Dubai’s landfill operators might just run out of feedstock…