Image Credit: Supplied

In a country that generated almost 4.8 million tonnes of trash last year, the issue of recycling is not a light matter.

"The issue of waste is very important in the UAE, which is a society that generates a large amount of waste per person," Jeremy Byatt, vice-president of Environment Consultancy and Services at Bee'ah, an envrionment agency mandated to collect waste in Sharjah, told Gulf News.

"Recycling is about closing the loop and changing the structure of the economy. If you can turn garbage into new raw material it's a much more efficient economy," he said.

The UAE generated 22 per cent of the 22.2 million tonnes of waste produced in the Gulf countries in 2009 according to a study released at the Middle East Waste Summit last year.

However, while the need is there, the recycling industry [in the UAE] is still nascent compared to recycling powerhouses such as the UK. The local recycling market is limited to items that can be traded like paper, plastics and metal, while local manufacturing industries are also limited in their abilities to accept recyclable goods.

The Dubai Government has been pushing to develop the industry.

"Dubai Municipality's goal is to recycle 100 per cent of waste by 2030," said Ajay Kumar, senior manager at Dulsco Waste Management Services.

"Whether we can achieve this goal is debatable. Having said that, we believe with the required legislation and best of business practices, we can achieve near about 100 per cent if not 100 per cent itself."

The recycling industry also faced a tough time during the downturn in other markets such as the UK. A sharp fall in demand from markets in the Far East put a once booming sector in a tough spot.

Homeowners' involvement

In order to develop the local recycling industry, the infrastructure which is still very much in the development phase needs to be improved, Byatt says.

"Many people grew up in places where recycling is encouraged and it becomes part of their habits. The infrastructure is there, for example, in Canada. I never need to ask for recycled paper because when I buy paper it is all recycled. We need to build on the local infrastructure here," he said.

Bee'ah is contributing by rolling out a residential recycling programme in the UAE so individual homeowners will have a way to recycle.

"We're making the markets so entrepreneurs will know what recycled materials are available. It's a chicken and egg situation. What you need first is to supply the raw material in order to start the recycling process," Byatt said.

While awareness campaigns are not a new phenomenon in the UAE, they have increased in terms of aggressiveness and scope over the past three to five years.

A boost in awareness has come in the form of the increased number of recycling collection centres, prominence of green issues in the media and an increased number of trade shows and exhibitions such as the Waste Summit and the recently held Green Brunch by Enpark.

However, according to Habiba Al Marashi, Chairperson of the Emirates Environment Group (EEG), the UAE still has a long way to go. "Awareness and commitment are two different things. There are many very clearly labelled recycling bins around the city, but when you have a closer look you'll find people have used them as garbage cans," she said.

Union Paper Mills tries to encourage recycling by offering companies paper boxes in which to put their waste paper. "If you give them solutions they are happy to do it. We collect from more than 300 companies," said Shabir Haideri, group general manager of M.A.H.Y Khoory, the parent company of Union Paper Mill.

EEG has launched several collection and clean-up campaigns where the participants are offered incentives in the form of rewards. Companies are also offered prizes for their levels of in-house recycling. Al Marashi said this has worked very well.

Another cash driven incentive that has proved to be popular is ‘Cash for Mobiles' launched last year which is a recycling reward scheme that encourages consumers to exchange their old mobile phones for instant cash.

"We run the retail scheme through a number of different stores such as Emax and Jacky's. From the retailers we've had an amazing reaction; they're very keen to offer customers other services that can add to the shopping experience and doesn't cost them anything. With consumers there seems to be much more interest in the fact you can get cash for old items over the environment factor," said Dominic Gothard, CEO and Chairman of the Green Foundation.

The Green Foundation has very recently expanded to include digital cameras, laptops and gaming consoles in the initiative.

Regulation infrastructure

The costs of running a business in the recycling industry can easily escalate due to the lack of legislation mandating local companies to recycle, meaning recycling companies get no support. Factors such as minimal gate fees to landfills promote escalating waste at a low cost to the end-user.

"For any waste processing units, it's imperative that they get the right kind of input materials to optimise production and justify returns on investment. Unless there are legislations on waste segregation and waste handling, its difficult to achieve the correct input stream. Moreover, legislations should stipulate and incentivise/subsidise the use of recycled products to a certain percentage in related industries. The secondary recycling industries are the need of the hour," Kumar said.

Construction: A sector with big potential

A sector to which the recycling industry can profitably turn its focus on is construction. According to the Dubai Statistics Centre, waste from the building industry amounted to 23.2 million tonnes in 2008. That is more than double the figure in 2006, and accounted for 84 per cent of total waste, against 74 per cent in 2006.

"Construction and industrial waste accounts for about 60-70 per cent of our waste. If you're able to capture that then, when it comes to the plant, you can separate some materials [such as aluminium which can be recycled 20 times]. The rest can be ground up into highly useful fines [fine materials]," said Byatt.

Emirates Recycling, a member of Al Rostamani Group, in partnership with Dubai Municipality is dedicated to the recycling and recovery of Dubai's construction and demolition waste. It has the capacity to convert more than three million tonnes of construction waste material generated in Dubai annually into reusable road and construction base aggregate.

Sharjah based Bee'ah, which was launched in 2006, recycles construction and demolition waste, which accounts for 67 per cent of waste in the emirate.

"The best countries in the world probably have a 75-80 per cent diversion rate of wastes from landfill. We're aiming for 40 per cent diversion rate in Sharjah," said Jeremy Byatt, vice-president of Environment Consultancy and Services at Bee'ah.

Would you recycle only if you were given incentives in the form of cash and prizes? Or is recycling part of your routine? What are some of the challenges you face?