[Dubai, United Arab Emirates] "The short version of the story is that we're not doing a very good job of managing waste," says John Roosen, Technical Director of AECOM Environment Middle East. "We are going to drown in waste."
Roosen's words hardly overstate the scale of the problem faced by the engineers, scientists and government officials gathered this month at the first annual IQPC City Waste forum in Dubai.
According to a recent report by the Arab Foundation for Environment and Development (AFED), the Arab world produces approximately 250,000 tons of solid waste every day, most of it dumped untreated in makeshift landfills, if it is collected at all.
Skyrocketing income levels in areas such as the UAE have resulted in increased consumer spending which has had a direct effect on waste levels.
To drive home the point, Roosen pulled out his briefcase, which he found in a Dubai dumpster unsoiled, in the original packaging and with the tags still attached.
The per capita production of solid waste in Arab cities such as Kuwait, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi is over 1.5 kg per day, placing them among the highest waste producers in the world.
In urban areas, waste management is particularly pressing. Over the last few generations the Arab world has seen a rapid increase in its urban population, with some countries, such as Kuwait and Qatar's population being urbanized at over 90%. Governments in those regions are struggling to keep apace with population growth.
Consumer waste, however, is not the only, or even the main, culprit.
"Construction waste is hugely dominant. It's the main component of waste in the region," said John Wigham, CEO of Cracknell, a sustainable landscaping firm.
At the height of the building boom, 2500 trucks a day made their way to Dubai's landfills loaded with waste from building sites. Among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), 55% of waste is estimated to come from construction and demolition.
Across the region overall, less than 20% of solid waste is properly treated, and less than 5% is recycled.
Most waste ends up in landfills, most of them poorly managed and doomed to pollute their surroundings for years to come. Glenn Platt, a Senior Project Manager for KEO International Consultants, cautioned that poorly 'capped off' landfills can produce, among other dangers, toxins that leach into groundwater and nearby lakes and streams, 'virtually unstoppable' fires, vermin, and injury from buried objects protruding from the land.
According to Platt, planning for landfill sites should incorporate the capping off strategy and include the costs for the monitoring of the site for 30 years after it closes.
There is a cheaper option though, which is gaining currency in the Middle East.
"For thousands of years, people have been composting material, and now there is tremendous opportunity for using that material," said John Roosen. The agricultural domain would particularly benefit, since the region's sandy soils often lack the requisite level of organic material for optimal plant growth.
Sayed Ali Shah, Head of the Compost Plant for Sharjah Municipality, said that the economics of composting were straightforward for the Emirate, since "every ton of waste we divert is accounted for. We save on the disposal side and we save on the compost itselfâ€¦we produce compost almost free, and our main customer is the municipality."
In most cases, governments are forming strategic partnerships with the private sector. In some areas, waste management is the province of specific segments of society. For instance, for over 50 years the streets of Cairo have been cleaned by a majority Christian caste of self-appointed waste collectors called the Zabaleen, who recycle solid waste and use the organic waste to feed their herds of swine.
According to The National Newspaper, there is now a major backlog of waste since the Egyptian government undertook a major swine cull this summer. Foreign companies hired by the government have not been able to do the job as effectively.
In affluent regions, the government has stepped in with lucrative tenders. Sharjah has signed an agreement for a 25 million cubic meter recycling plant called Al Saja'ah, which will turn an existing landfill into a waste management solution, while Qatar has awarded two multi-billion waste contracts to international firms.
Most specialists agree that looking at waste as an income generator is the key to combating the problem.
"We must make changes to encourage businesses to sort wasteâ€¦perhaps waste handlers could be encouraged to sort waste as a financial bonus," John Wigham said. "If you can find ways of keeping the profit motive in the process, the private sector will stay involved."
The initial sorting and collecting is key to the success of any recycling program, he maintained, since it is the most labor intensive stage of the recycling process and also the most crucial.
A success story in this regard is Dubai's small-scale paper recycling industry, which allows entrepreneurs to collect paper waste, package it, and sell it to a larger company for recycling.
Wigham pointed to plastic as another kind of waste that could be processed using this model. The plastic sheeting used to coat the half-constructed glass towers dotted around Dubai's landscape is worth AED800 a ton, but, he asked, "how do we get the relatively small values back to the guy who would actually peel the waste plastic off the building and put it somewhere?"
Numerous businesses have sprung up in the Emirates to make innovative use of the massive quantities of plastic that would otherwise fill landfills around the country, particularly the ubiquitous plastic water bottles. A company called EcoWood uses them to make a wood-like material that is durable, weather proof and can be used and worked exactly like wood.
Getting hold of the raw material is an issue however. Plastic water bottle recycling is labor intensive: the cap, the ring around the neck, and the label all need to be separated from the bottle itself. Recyclers rely on private sector collectors and environmental NGOs like the Emirates Environment Group to fill the gap.
Many municipalities have embraced bus-stop recycling bins in a bid to encourage the population to dispose of waste responsibly. However, specialists like Wigham and Roosen say that curbside recycling bins are not a panacea. Recycling bins often confuse users if they are not adequately labeled, and they require a great deal of regular collection and transport for what amounts to a small haul.
Clearly, the issue will require public action, which will in turn require that consumers in the Arab world pay attention to an area of life that receives little attention.
Most of the specialists at the conference concurred that consumers in the Arab world were still not motivated to take action.
"Environmental issues in general and waste management in particular are recent issues on the Arab World's agenda," said Dr. Mohammed Aboelenein, Chairman of the Department of Sociology at UAE University.
"Currently, there aren't clear environmental policies in most Arab countries...perhaps some Arab governments think that environmental issues are trivial compared to severe economic conditions and the economic problems they face."
The recently announced mega projects announced by governments around the Gulf are heartening, but in the end the race against waste will rely on individual consumers moving toward 'zero waste' solutions. Dr. Aboelenein advocates a three-pronged approach combining education from the grade-school level, awareness-raising campaigns in major media, and the profit motive, where consumers would be given cash incentives to sort or recycle their trash.
"Attitudes are not easy to change. It took years for the US to alter people's attitudes towards waste. The Arab governments should study -and maybe copy- successful models around the world."