Slowly, UAE climbs on recycling bandwagon

Failure to separate rubbish a major problem as is the downturn in demand for recycled materials.

June 11, 2009 / Fujairah / Horizon Technologies in Fujairah is one of the only hand full of companies that recycles June 11, 2009. (Sammy Dallal / The National)
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Once every week for the past year, Aspen Aman has had a rubbish commute from her home in Al Ain to Dubai Media City - loading her car with bags full of empty plastic and glass bottles, paper and soft-drink cans.

Such material still considered useless by many in the UAE can have a meaningful second life if they find their way to recycling companies. If Ms Aman threw away her rubbish in Al Ain, where all household waste is simply landfilled, it would only add to the Emirates' growing waste problem. She makes the effort to transport it to a recycling depot operated by Union Paper Mills, a Dubai-based company.

But people like Ms Aman are in a minority - and facilities like this are few and far between. In Abu Dhabi, for instance, Ivan Semerdjiev does not have as far to go, but it still is not simple for him to do the right thing by his rubbish. The capital has only one location where separated waste can be left, behind Spinney's supermarket in Khalidiya, just a few minutes from the financial specialist's home.

And clearly it is in demand. When he gets there, Mr Semerdjiev frequently has to balance his waste on top of a pile, or leave it on the ground alongside overflowing bins. Although the vast majority of household waste in the country still ends up in landfill, more and more people are trying to follow the example of people such as Ms Aman and Mr Semerdjiev. They are the suppliers of raw material for a young but growing industry - companies which collect recyclable materials and sell them on to reprocessing facilities abroad and, increasingly, companies setting up facilities in the UAE itself.

But, say the entrepreneurs, in the absence of government legislation and incentives, the initiative of the private sector can go only go so far - and in the wake of the economic crisis the fledging recycling industry is badly in need of official support, in the form of incentives, education and legislation. "Over the past six to seven months, the industry has taken a big hit," says Cameron Marland, assistant general manager at Zenath Recycling and Waste Management in Dubai.

The price of recycled materials has dropped dramatically, by as much as 65 per cent in the case of cardboard. "We have had to become a little bit more diverse and a little bit more cost-sensitive about how we do our business," said Mr Marland. The recycling facilities that now exist all rely on users making the effort to separate materials - an effort that, especially as temperatures begin to rise, may deter all but the most dedicated.

Many people, say recyclers, do not understand the concept of recycling. They dump all kinds of rubbish in the dedicated bins, dramatically reducing the worth of the potentially reusable material. "You can provide the bins but what happens if people are not practising?" says Ajay Kumar, senior manager of operations at Dubai-based Dulsco Waste Management Services, which provides recycling services. "I have seen zero compliance."

Industry data show that once waste has been mixed and contaminated with organic matter, only 12 per cent of valuable materials can be extracted. If the waste is collected separately, the successful extraction rate can rise to 95 per cent. This, he says, is a signal for government to intervene with education, especially at times when recycling companies are suffering because of the global financial crisis.

The best way to win support for the recycling industry, he and others believe, is to explain the many uses to which waste can be put. Encouragingly, although most recycled material has been shipped abroad, an increasing number of companies producing goods from waste material are springing up in the UAE. The vast majority of recyclable materials in the country are collected in Dubai, where the effort to segregate paper, plastic, metal and glass from organic waste and other contaminants is most visible. The process is driven by private initiative, as property developers, malls and hotels negotiate with waste-management companies.

One such company is Zenath, which now runs 15 community recycling centres on behalf of property developers in Dubai. "Within the next 18 months, this number can go up to a hundred," says Mr Marland. "The industry is very young but I am in the process of a lot of negotiations." The company is also building a recycling factory in Abu Dhabi. Set for completion at the end of this year, the facility will be capable of reprocessing the four most commonly used types of plastic.

Prakash Parab, director for waste management services at Dulsco, says he has "seen a genuine interest among residents in recycling". A number of companies in the UAE are now developing novel ways to make the most of recycled materials. Eco Plastic Industries is taking discarded plastic and turning it into a wood substitute that can be used to make such products as marina jetties, fences, garden furniture and shades for car parks and pools. More durable than wood, it can still be nailed, sawn, drilled, routed and painted. "Wherever wood goes, this can go," says Abdul Hamid Khoory, the company's chairman and founder.

The firm has been in existence since 1996 but it is only in the past two years that interest in its product has picked up. Since then, it has found its way into hotels, golf courses, Dubai International Airport and, most recently, Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort. Yet the firm has a long way to go; it is running at just one third of its recycling capacity of 15 tonnes a day. Only government support, says the industry, can raise recycling to another level. One way for government to help would be to buy more recycled products, says Mr Khoory of Eco Plastic Industries. "The authorities should support this industry," he said. "They can encourage us by consuming our products."

Another pathfinder firm is Fujairah-based Horizon Technologies, the only company in the country capable of transforming used water bottles into new ones. Until now, such potentially valuable waste has been bought by overseas firms, shipped abroad and processed there. PET is the material used in most milk and water bottles. A leading consumer of bottled water, the UAE uses around 80,000 tonnes of the material every year, says general manager Ranjnish Sinha, and one tonne of PET is enough to manufacture 40,000 bottles. Horizon's plant has the capacity to recycle 20,000 tonnes of PET a year.

The company has a valuable partner in Al Ain Mineral Water Company, which earlier this year launched recycling schemes in schools in Al Ain. But despite this support, because of difficulties with finding sufficient raw material, the company has so far operated at a monthly average of only 500 tonnes. "The biggest challenge for us is collecting the raw material," says Mr Sinha. "The collection of bottles is in a nascent stage here. Here things are picking up, but if you go to some other parts of the world, you will see that these schemes have been established since a long time."

He is, however, optimistic. "Now that we are up and running, a lot of people have expressed an interest in collecting bottles." As well as educating consumers about recycling, government could also create economic pressure by charging more for waste dumped at landfill sites, says Mr Parab. At present, waste companies are charged as little as Dh10 per load, he says, which means there is no incentive to invest in the infrastructure to support recycling. It is much cheaper for companies to simply dump and pay.

"Regulation is very important," Mr Parab said. On average, each UAE resident produces around 1.75kg of household waste per day, more than most European countries. The average German produces 1.6kg. However, through recycling schemes and projects that convert solid waste to energy, Germany has reduced the amount of waste going to landfill by 40 per cent. In addition to saving landfill space and reducing pressure on raw materials, recycling can also help save energy. This is especially true with materials such as steel and aluminium, which can be recycled hundreds of times without losing any of their quality. Recycling an item made of aluminium saves 90 per cent of the water and 60 per cent of the electricity it takes to make a new one.

Although the UAE has facilities to process aluminium, it lacks facilities to process other valuable materials including steel, and all waste is sent abroad. Likewise, all newspaper for recycling still has to be shipped overseas, while many types of plastic travel thousands of miles to China. Official efforts have been made. In 2006, Dubai Municipality commissioned a private company to process 400 tonnes of mixed municipal waste per day, extracting the materials for reprocessing. But quite what impact the project has had remains unclear.

Asked what proportion of Dubai's solid waste was recycled, the municipality said it had no figures. In Abu Dhabi, there are no details yet of a recycling initiative to be launched this year. Earlier this week officials at the Waste Management Centre - Abu Dhabi said there were plans to build a sorting plant for the emirate, but it is not clear whether this will be in conjunction with efforts to enforce some segregation of the waste at source.

On Sunday the centre unveiled new automated underground collection bins for the city, which by their nature preclude the possibility of consumers separating their waste. Too few, admitted an official, were aware of the benefits of recycling.