A trash site full of plastic bags on the outskirts of Islamabad
File picture of a trash site on the outskirts of Islamabad. The image is for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: AFP

The UAE has been blessed since its founding to have leaders who look to the future. Although the late Sheikh Zayed, the father of our nation, grew up in a very different world to ours, he instinctively knew how to plan for the modern era of oil wealth.

Under his guidance the lives of his people were transformed for the better.

This vision has continued under our present-day leaders, who have never grown complacent about our good fortune. We have long known that oil will either not last forever or be replaced by more efficient energy sources.

One way to confront this reality is to grow the non-oil sector, and on that score the UAE has been remarkably successful. Oil industries accounted for 29.5 per cent of UAE GDP in 2017, down from 79 per cent in 1980.

Questions remain

But while this is a commendable statistic, it leaves two questions unanswered: what energy sources should replace oil, and how do we ensure that our future is built on a sustainable footing, to ensure the well-being of generations to come?

There are many ways to address the urgent need for clean energy sources, and the UAE is making strides, particularly with regards to solar and nuclear energy. But this doesn’t address another urgent environmental issue.

The burden of waste

An unfortunate by-product of economic advancement in the UAE is that we have one of the highest per capita waste generation rates in the world, with the average person here generating around 2.7kg of waste every day. And with rapid urbanisation in the Middle East, waste production in the region is only expected to increase.

Fortunately, there is a solution that can answer both the waste and energy questions. We have used innovation and best practices to triple waste diversion rates in Sharjah since our founding in 2007. We are currently achieving 76 per cent, the highest in the Middle East, and thanks to our facilities we are achieving maximum recovery of recyclable materials.

Diverting into energy

However, up until now non-recyclable waste has continued to be diverted to landfills. We have long identified waste-to-energy as a great solution towards diverting this unrecyclable waste away from landfills, in addition to meeting our energy needs.

But we also knew that to make this effective across the whole country, an integrated strategy was required, starting from proper collection and segregation of waste streams, to processing, treatment and recovery of recyclable materials, and generating energy from nonrecyclable waste using waste-to-energy facilities.

As a clean energy leader, Masdar, Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, is advancing ways to bring to market pioneering technologies. This shared vision led us to explore the potential of waste-to-energy projects in the region and establish a joint venture, the Emirates Waste to Energy Company (EWTE).

We broke ground on the Sharjah Waste to Energy Facility, the first of its kind in the region, in 2017, with commercial operations set for 2021.

This facility is a major step forward for ensuring a cleaner future. We are proud to have formed a pioneering partnership with Masdar, as it is an example of two leading companies striving to improve the quality of life for everyone in the UAE. Our facility will ensure the complete diversion of waste, while monetising and producing clean, sustainable energy.

The plant will incinerate around 300,000 tonnes of waste per year, diverting it away from landfills, and generating 30MW of clean energy. Not only will this power over 28,000 homes, expanding the UAE’s renewable energy portfolio, but will also ensure environmental protection by displacing almost 450,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, saving 45 million cubic metres of natural gas every year. In the process, it will make Sharjah the first zero-waste city in the Middle East by 2021.

Tap opportunities

We also believe in the vast economic potential of waste-to-energy. The sector is set to grow exponentially, reaching $2.9 billion by 2022 and its rapid development is fully supported by our government. The bold UAE Vision 2021 Agenda seeks 75 per cent diversion of waste from landfill and meeting 27 per cent of our energy needs from clean sources, while the “Energy Strategy 2050”, launched in 2017, aims to increase the contribution of clean energy in the total energy mix from 25 per cent to 50 per cent by 2050 and reduce carbon footprint of power generation by 70 per cent, thus saving Dh700 billion by 2050.

We will be exploring greater use of this technology, understanding it more, improving efficiencies and effectiveness. As the first project of its type in the region, the Sharjah Waste to Energy Facility is an ambitious project, but we are eager to set the standard for infrastructure and best practices for the Middle East, and hope to establish similar plants across the region.

We welcome efforts by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change to explore the possibility of establishing a waste-to-energy project in the Northern Emirates, with support from Bee’ah and Masdar and we will work in close alignment with the Ministry to support its goals.

We have always been driven by our mission to make the UAE an icon of environmental best practices, and this plant will help us achieve our ambitious environmental goals for the Emirates. Our partnership with Masdar is a first step towards developing more projects and bold initiatives that will help ensure a sustainable and green future for the UAE.

Khaled Al Huraimel is Group CEO of Bee’ah.