In a downturn, little goes to waste

Decline in economic activity cited as the main factor in the six-million-tonne reduction of material taken to landfills.

The global economic downturn has crippled construction activity, burst the property bubble and wiped out thousands of jobs. But for Dubai's overflowing landfills, it seems to have brought a much-needed respite. Last year the emirate, which with Abu Dhabi is one of the world's largest per-capita waste generators, saw its amount of waste reduced by 22.2 per cent compared to 2008.

Dubai Municipality produced 21.4 million tonnes of waste, down more than six million tonnes from 2008. The trend, said Hassan Makki, the director of the municipality's waste management department, was evident across the waste spectrum domestic, hazardous, construction and medical. "The reason is due to the economic recession," he said. Cameron Marland, the assistant general manager at Zenath Recycling and Waste Management, one of the largest waste management companies in the country, said the municipality's figures reflected his company's experience.

"The figures are probably correct," he said. "The downturn is definitely a factor - We definitely have a number of [waste collection] trucks now sitting idle." The reduction, said Mr Marland, has been most evident in construction and demolition waste. Reduced construction activity means fewer labourers and less waste from their accommodations. Last year, Dubai Municipality announced plans for an incineration facility. It was part of a scheme to reduce by 80 per cent the amount of waste going into its overflowing landfills.

Some are now questioning whether the current reduction in waste could make those plans less urgent. The incinerators were projected to burn 6,500 tonnes of waste per day. When the announcement was made in October, Mr Makki said the plan was to burn household garbage, rejected materials from Dubai's waste-sorting facility and sewage sludge, a by-product of water treatment plants. Yet even as it was announced, critics questioned the plan, pointing out that a large incineration facility would undermine recycling efforts.

Others have questioned the financing of the project. The major source of financing used by other countries tipping fees is not relevant in Dubai. Tipping fees at the various landfills in the emirate are just Dh10 (US$2.70) per load. Mr Makki said the municipality was not abandoning the idea of an incinerator, and that officials were working on the project. "The tender documents are under preparation and review by the concerned departments," he said.

Recycling has tremendous potential for growth. Only a fraction of the waste generated in the emirate, as well as in the rest of the country, is recycled. With proper incentives, said Mr Marland, a large chunk of the household refuse that now ends up in landfills could be reprocessed for plastics, paper, glass and metal. "Why not create an industry with environmental jobs?" he said. Mr Marland said interest in recycling schemes seemed to be picking up.

"There is definitely now an increase in enquiries; people are looking at ways and means of reducing waste," he said. But obstacles remain. In the UAE, Mr Marland said, the lack of infrastructure is the biggest challenge. "The main requirement in the city of Dubai is facilities," he said. "People contact us on our website, asking where they can recycle. What facilities there are, they are often in private developments in new Dubai or schools. We cannot send people to those facilities."

In addition to household waste, construction and demolition debris, and oil sludge and old tyres can also be recycled. At the end of last year, Emirates Recycling, the Dubai-based company which is also behind the emirate's delayed construction and demolition recycling project, was awarded the contract to open a recycling facility. It was expected to be a solution for removing the eight million tyres that have piled up in Dubai over the past 20 years.

Mr Makki said that the two projects were still under construction.