One of the symbols of our battle with Covid-19 is the disposable face mask. At the beginning of July, some estimates showed that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves were being produced every month, according to the Environmental Science & Technology journal, to meet demand. Whether officially mandated or not, the thin plastic face coverings have become as ubiquitous as the people wearing them in public spaces – for their obvious, medically professed-health benefits.
But we did not expect to see them floating in our oceans, out-numbering and endangering our marine life. Yet that’s where they are ending up. Across the globe, our waters have become clogged up with these single-use, non-biodegradable materials carelessly thrown aside. Experts, for instance, are concerned that the beaches along the French Riviera will eventually house more face masks than jellyfish.
And conservationists in the UAE have warned that this worrying new trend has curtailed global recycling efforts and only exacerbated the problems caused by the 8 million tonnes of plastic that enter our oceans each year from countries all over the world.
In this context, the dialogue on effective recycling must be resumed. Governments, as well as the private and the public sector, all have a role to play in setting targets, raising awareness and overseeing a recycling landscape that not only reduces plastic waste, but can turn that waste into a useful by-product, such as energy, through hygienic methods of incineration.
Waste disposal is a huge challenge at the moment. There are up to 2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste being produced globally every year, and up to 30 per cent of that waste is not being managed in a responsible manner, according to the World Bank.
With resources being finite amid this exacerbated ”throwaway culture”, finding ways to improve our circular economy is imperative. And, when we consider that generating energy from waste, whether for electricity or heat, is a truly viable option, there is an incentive to raise our waste management game.
By simply doing research on how we can produce energy from non-recyclable residual waste and simultaneously deal with the problems of large-scale waste and landfills, we will find that there are solutions already at our disposal.
Producing energy from collected landfill gas is one of the best ways to reduce the negative impacts of existing landfills on the environment and the people living nearby. As such, countries across the globe have begun recycling their garbage to produce energy to heat their homes and public buildings.
In the UAE, there is a concerted drive under way to pick up the pace in the waste recycling space. Today, we have one of the highest waste generation rates per capita in the world, with per capita municipal solid waste generation reaching around 1.8 kilograms, according to data from the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment. This puts us in a urgent position to drive the waste-to-energy conversation. The UAE has laid out a target to divert 75 per cent of the waste from its landfills by 2021 as a way of supporting the Energy Strategy 2050, which aims to increase the contribution of clean energy from 25 per cent to 50 per cent by 2050 and reduce carbon footprint of power generation by 70 per cent.
Furthermore, on the back of the Federal National Council passing a bill to punish illegal waste disposal in the nation in 2018, a number of waste-to-energy plants are either being planned or under way.
One such example is the Emirates Waste to Energy Company project, currently under construction in Sharjah. The result of a collaboration between two UAE pioneers in the waste and renewable energy space – Bee’ah and Masdar – the region’s first waste-to-energy plant is on track for completion by the end of 2021. Once open, the facility will process more than 300,000 tonnes of waste each year to generate around 30 megawatts of energy, a capacity to power up to 28,000 homes and displace almost 450,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions yearly.
Bee'ah also recently announced a novel idea for disused garbage landfill – to turn it into a solar-powered farm. Another first-of-its-kind for the region, the new solar farm project is planned for construction on 47 hectares of landfill in Sharjah, and which would see the emirate utilising a site of rubbish that would otherwise take years of remediation. Such innovative thinking is the key to optimising our rubbish.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi Power Corporation and its subsidiary Emirates Water and Electricity Company have an agreement with Tadweer to develop two waste-to-energy plants in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, which will aim to convert 1.5 million tonnes of municipal waste per year into energy and will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by around 2.5 million tonnes between them annually.
And in Dubai, a Dh2 billion waste-to-energy plant is under way in Al Warsan 2, which will be able to treat 2,000 metric tonnes every day, producing 60 megawatts of energy and, vitally, divert waste away from extant landfills to limit the methane being emitted.
There is plenty of exciting work happening in this space. But it's also important for us to place the potential of waste-to-energy in its proper context. We must manage waste effectively and appropriately. Deciding where we can innovate, and where we must dispose, recover, recycle and minimise its generation at source or prevent it is critical to building the infrastructure and technologies to make waste management a priority for our citizens, residents and municipal authorities.
But with projects in progress, and the circular economy mindset that is integral to the ethos of the UAE today, we are on the cusp of realising a powerful, state-of-the-art means of producing energy from an array of promising sources.
Dr Nawal Al-Hosany is a permanent representative of the UAE to the International Renewable Energy Agency