Sofi Chabowski chose cloth diapers for her children as they were cheaper and more eco-friendly than the disposable variety Image Credit: Supplied

With four children under the age of five, Sofi Chabowski came to cloth diapers purely from an economic perspective. Disposable diapers can cost Dh5,000 to Dh6,000 per child, she says, while fabric versions begin at one-tenth the price. 

“You can cloth-diaper a baby from birth to potty training for as little as Dh600 up to about Dh4,000 depending on your choice of product, and the same diapers can be used for subsequent children,” she says. 

That her choice sends less to the nation’s landfills is a wonderful bonus. “Disposable diapers are often full of chemicals and take up to 500 years to break down,” she tells GN Focus. “The reason experts don’t know a precise length of time is because the first ones ever made still haven’t broken down.”

The passionate Brit has nevertheless been able to build a four-year-old business from eco-aware, quality baby products and opened her first store, Eggs & Soldiers, in Dubai’s Times Square Mall in April. 

She and her children have personally tested every brand in the store, which carries trendy products such as Duck Duck Goose reusable bamboo wipes, Haakaa silicone breast pumps as well as the UAE-made, eco-aware Baby-Lu teething necklaces and Love By Jo nursing covers.

Chabowski is one of a raft of enterprising eco-warriors launching green businesses in a country where it can seem hard to escape from the ubiquity of plastic, which all too often is cheaper than pro-planet products. For consumers and businesses alike, money almost always trumps altruism.  

No data on the size of the overall market for eco-friendly products in the UAE is easily available, but companies in the sector say it’s clear an opportunity exists. “Eco-friendly products are seeing a phenomenal growth in the UAE, following the global movement for green solutions due to mass media coverage on the impact of plastic on our oceans,” says Peter Avram, Regional Director of Avani Middle East. 

The Bali-based company brought a range of fully sustainable disposable packaging solutions and compostable plastic alternatives to the UAE in October and its bio-paper cups, bowls and straws, bio-cassava bags and birch wood cutlery have found traction quickly.

Although its products are more expensive per unit than plastic alternatives — close to double in some cases — Avani now supplies to more than a dozen businesses, including several premier hotel and restaurant brands in the country, Avram says. 

“We are seeing a growing demand for our products as a result by business due to consumer demand. While there are no current statistics on the size of the market for eco-friendly products — the most recent reports state over 11 billion plastic bags are used in the UAE each year — this shows a large market for an alternative solution,” he adds, citing ministry figures. Avani Middle East expects to be turning a profit within 12-18 months.

Several local players are also now stepping into the breach, either with cheaper alternatives or cooler, trendier substitutes to existing choices, often motivated by a desire to truly improve the environment for future generations. 

Rukhsana Kausar has been selling water filters to companies and individuals across the UAE since 2009, when she launched Liquid of Life to provide a cost-effective, reduced-carbon alternative to plastic bottled water.

“Working directly with our manufacturers in the US, Europe and South Korea, we are able to create the water filters for this region and produce filters that can last 12 months rather than just a few months like other products, thereby reducing waste,” the Briton says.

Doing the maths for GN Focus, she shows how businesses can enjoy savings of between 60-80 per cent per year with her products as compared to plastic bottled water costs.

Her biggest challenge has been the perceptions associated with tap water in the UAE, despite municipality reassurances about its quality and safety. “This [perception] has significantly changed over the past three years as a result of increased awareness towards the issues surrounding plastic pollution, global trends and a drive and motivation to reduce costs." 

It hasn’t been an easy journey though — after having run at break-even levels for the past couple of years, her company only expects to be profitable this year.

Beverley Church fights a similar uphill battle with Bags of the Future. The Dubai-based British national creates and markets the quirky line of customised jute and cotton bags in addition to holding down a full-time day job. Besides shopping totes, she sells carriers for yoga mats and bottles, as well as cool or thermal bags, but says the challenges as an entrepreneur promoting the culture of recycling are enormous.

“Businesses are comparing the price of potential eco-friendly products versus cheap plastic and don’t feel they need to make the change, since plastic is unfortunately still totally acceptable and of course much cheaper to purchase,” she says, “although the market is increasing with the momentum against single-use plastic growing.” 

Perhaps the biggest indication of the growing market for eco-friendly solutions is the launch of the new Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort in Abu Dhabi. Sited close to the nesting grounds of the endangered hawksbill turtles, the 293-room Abu Dhabi hotel is committed to sustainable tourism and will be free of single-use plastic bottles and straws. 

General Manager Linda Griffin says, “Global market trends see a growth in the segment of the environmentally conscious traveller. Research tells us that the modern traveller has an expectation for the brands that they associate with to act in a socially responsible way.  We feel that we are able to fill a gap in Abu Dhabi through our approach to sustainability,” she told GN Focus via email.

“Looking at local efforts in the UAE there is an increasing awareness of being environmentally conscious and several media outlets have reported on local companies and residents joining the movement.”

Griffin insists that any extra costs incurred as a result of the property’s positioning will not be passed on to travellers, explaining some costs will be counterbalanced by savings from eco-efficiency. “From an economics perspective, being more efficient means saving money too in areas such as utilities and fuel. This allows us to reinvest these savings into new projects and technologies.”

Future of waste management

As the UAE aims to recycle 75 per cent of its solid waste following the passing of a draft law in May, organisations across the country are already helping generate energy from refuse and upcycling it into industrial products. Among them is Sharjah-based Bee’ah, one of the first companies in the UAE to take an integrated approach to waste management. 

“When we use and dispose a resource, we lose the value and energy contained within it as well. By investing in advanced technology, we can ensure greater recovery and treatment of finer materials, which would otherwise be dumped in landfills,” explains Fahad Shehail, in picture, Group Chief of Staff at Bee’ah.  

Among its operations, Bee’ah recycles about 95 per cent of Sharjah’s construction waste into aggregate for roads and walkways, and every day its facilities turn 9,000 tyres into crumb rubber for sports facilities.

Last year, the company launched the UAE’s first waste-to-energy plant in a joint venture with Masdar. The Sharjah Multi-fuel Waste to Energy Facility is expected to be functional by 2020 and will divert around 300,000 tonnes of waste away from landfill every year to produce 30MW of clean energy. 

“We have already signed a power purchase agreement with the Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority to supply the energy produced from the plant to the Sharjah power grid,” Shehail says. 

World Environment Day 2018 

Initiated  by the United Nations in 1974, World Environment Day is organised on June 5 to raise awareness of pressing environmental issues concerning countries worldwide. Every World Environment Day has a global host country, where the official celebrations take place. This year’s host is India and the theme for the event is beating plastic pollution. Visit worldenvironmentday.global for more information.