Desert Burger is a small corner shawarma shop, one of the many cafeterias and restaurants in Abu Dhabi that combined produce 20,000 litres of used cooking oil each day.
After he pops a serving of French fries into the deep fryer, the cook gestures to a row of dumpsters outside the shop, signalling where all the oil used for this day is destined at the end of his shift.
“Garbage,” he says.
When restaurants don't throw the oil away, they pour it down the drain, clogging the municipal sewer system and costing Abu Dhabi millions in cleanup fees.
But all that is set to change by the end of this year, when Tadweer, the Centre for Waste Management in Abu Dhabi, aims to have an interconnected series of plans up and running that will divert all the cooking oil and hazardous medical waste that goes into the Al Dhafra Landfill and instead turn it into electricity.
The schemes are part of an Abu Dhabi plan to divert 80 per cent of its waste from landfills through recycling by 2030, up from the current 30 per cent of 11 million total tonnes of waste being generated annually. Saeed Mohamed Al Mehairbi, Tadweer's acting general manager, spoke about the pressure on the emirate's landfill when the Al Dhafra plan was announced during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in January. He said he wished every resident in Abu Dhabi could visit to see in person how much is being thrown away and what impact it has.
“So we can feel and understand how we can help our environment,” he said. “Every person young or old can change their behaviour.”
The waste-to-energy scheme involves the building of three plants at an eco-park at the Al Dhafra landfill, including the UAE’s first project that will turn landfill-produced methane and greenhouse gases into energy. Another plant will turn the cooking oil into biodiesel and fatty acids used to make soap, while a third will incinerate the emirate’s medical and hazardous waste.
Together the deals are worth Dh165 million, and because the capital costs are coming from investors, there is no cost to the government, says Dr Udayan Banerjee, policies and legislation specialist at Tadweer.
Hazardous and medical waste producers will pay for collection, while businesses will be required to sell their used cooking oil according to their license requirements with the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, for about 80 fils a litre.
Blue Al Serkal, the Dubai firm that has been contracted to collect the cooking oil, is ready to go as soon as the final approval is given. That is likely to be later this year, says Mohammed Al Kaabi, the company’s managing director.
It has already been collecting cooking oil from Dubai since 2011 and expects to start operations in Abu Dhabi this year, he says.
“We have the team and we can just dispatch the team from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, as simple as that, he says.
Ramky and BRS Ventures Joint Venture are charged with collecting and incinerating about 15,000 tonnes per year of medical and hazardous waste in Abu Dhabi, while CleanCo will collect about 3,000 tonnes per year in Al Ain.
Green Energy Solutions (GES) and Sustainability, based in Dubai, will collect 60 to 70 per cent of the gases produced by the landfill and in another plant, according to preliminary estimates, producing seven to 10 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the conversion and incineration projects. The project will also be registered with the Development Mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for carbon credit.
GES is already capturing methane at the Al Qusais Landfill in Dubai, reducing the impact of the methane it produces by more than 300,000 tonnes per year, although there is no conversion scheme in place. GES is also in the testing phase at another site in Ras Al Khaimah.
The GCC is largely still landfilling most of its waste, so the Abu Dhabi landfill gas-to-energy project – expected to break ground in June – is a game-changer, said GES chief executive Anita Nouri.
She called landfill gas power generation “the lowest hanging fruit on the renewable energy tree”.
“The hurdles we are facing are breaking ground to enable these types of projects in the region,” she said. “A place that has relied heavily on fossil fuels to supply power that is moving towards renewable energy is excellent and has its challenges.”
Not only is methane gas an environmental problem but it can cause landfill fires, which can send carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other harmful elements into the atmosphere as well, says Dr Banerjee.
“All those issues will be solved by the landfill gas-to-energy projects that we have signed,” he said. “I would say it’s a very significant achievement in terms of managing not only methane but the overall environmental issue with respect to landfills.”
There are still many challenges on the horizon when it comes to Abu Dhabi’s waste. For example, Al Mehairbi points out that half of what is sent to landfill still comes from construction and demolition. But officials are working on more solutions to reduce the landfill size. Al Mehairbi said those are expected to include additional waste reduction measures, programmes for food composting and recycling schemes. Tadweer is also in the process of signing contracts for dead animal incinerators in the Abu Dhabi and Al Dhafra regions, as well as two contracts to recycle electronic and electrical waste in Abu Dhabi.