Waste Prevention in Middle East – Prospects and Challenges

The best way of dealing with waste, both economically and environmentally, is to avoid creating it in the first place. People and businesses that use resources wisely not only save money but also have much less impact on the environment. That is why waste prevention rightly occupies the top spot in the so-called “Waste Hierarchy” set out in EU and national waste legislation. 

Waste prevention is about the way in which the products and services we all rely on are designed, made, bought and sold, used, consumed and disposed of. For example:

  • Making products that are more durable, repairable, re-usable and recyclable would help cut down on the amount of waste being created
  • Encouraging people and businesses to re-use goods via charity shops or other re-use networks would help boost markets for second hand items
  • Reducing the amounts of hazardous, harmful, or difficult to recycle substances in products or materials would help to protect the environment as well as improve the efficiency with which resources are used. 

The aim of the waste prevention is to break the link between economic growth and the environmental impacts associated with the generation of waste. This is sometimes referred to as “decoupling”, as in the past there has been a link between economic growth and increases in the amount of waste being produced.

Present Scenario

The per capita production of solid waste in Arab cities such as Riyadh, Doha and Abu Dhabi is over 1.5 kg per day, placing them among the highest per capita 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 a pace 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 Middle East region. At the height of the building boom, among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), 55% of waste was estimated to come from construction and demolition. Currently across the region overall, less than 20% of solid waste is properly treated, and less than 5% is recycled.

The Middle East’s growing waste problem has started a debate among the region’s officials and environmentalists, some of whom are eager to see schemes such as pay-as-you-throw implemented. I recently met with the region’s waste officials at the recent ‘Middle East Waste Management Conference, Dubai’.  Officials stressed the importance of waste prevention but stated that there are “many challenges” and discussions required before a definitive waste prevention plan can be developed.

Major Challenges

For a good waste prevention plan to work for cities like Dubai, Muscat and Doha, it is important to say that there is going to have to be a high number of different initiatives that will work together in order to build up a waste prevention plan.  There has to be a commitment from all parties to create a ‘Waste Prevention Programme’.  Governments should propose policy, which include proposals for tool-kits on waste minimisation, business waste reduction trials and a Waste Prevention Fund.

It is not going to simply take one thing from governments saying ‘adopt this’, as that is not going to be enough. While a waste prevention programme is required from governments and businesses, what is also needed is to develop a plan in order to gauge future policies that could tie in with the waste hierarchy.

Municipal officials in the region should urge residents to help tackle the significant environmental challenge posed by increasing volumes of waste by changing entrenched habits and taking personal responsibility to ensure clean surroundings. There are people from many different cultures. It is important to keep the awareness and waste prevention campaigns high because each new resident will bring in their own habits and there will no doubt be some people who have no regard for the environment. In return, governments should make it easier for householders and businesses and everyone to do the right thing.

I very much welcome the UAE’s plans to ban plastic bags by 2013, a green gas station in Dubai as well as efforts to encourage the use of public transport by going car-free for the day but it seems that all these initiatives have had a limited impact on the overall green credentials of the city. A study by the top four global custom market research firm, Synovate, on ‘green’ behaviour shows that consumers in the UAE are among the top purchasers of ecological and organic products, but rank near the bottom when it comes to recycling household waste. The survey also found women and older consumers are more environmentally conscious.

With a large expat community, many residents come to Middle Eastern countries where recycling is already part of everyday life. “The challenge is one of communication to generate awareness of recycling amongst a transient community and to create commitment from homeowners and residents to participate in the local initiatives being launched by both the public and private sectors. Most resident communities in the Middle East do not have the household recycling collection that exists in other countries.”

Action Plan

Middle Eastern governments should agree a responsibility deal with the business sector which should include a commitment by businesses to promote the waste hierarchy and the need to place greater emphasis on waste prevention and resource efficiency in their dealings with their waste producer customers. Also, there should be discussions  looking at issues such as how to decide which products and materials to target as waste prevention priorities, how to extend re-use, repair, and leasing business models, and how to make the idea of "waste prevention" more meaningful to people and businesses.

Priorities products and materials for waste prevention could include electrical and electronic equipment, clothing and textiles, construction materials, food waste, and packaging. The governments should put in place the much-needed recycling infrastructure and make segregation of waste at source compulsory. But a problem still remains in getting the recycling message across.

Correlation of green habits likely has a lot to do with availability. Middle East countries are quite good at buying ecological and organic products but could do better at recycling. That’s because they don’t have a well-developed system for collecting recyclables, which helps explain this. So the results don’t necessarily mean that people don’t want to be greener – it may just be that they can’t. Governments across the region could certainly help increase their population’s ability to engage in more green behaviour, whether by promoting recycling programmes, or by offering incentives to producers of ecological and organic products.

An issue that I have stressed to the officials during my stay in Dubai in October 2012 was that there still isn’t a watchdog monitoring green companies in the UAE as there is in European countries. Recycling is not cheap but there are ways and means to mitigate the cost. If it is managed properly, implemented correctly, and there is awareness among stakeholders, it will not be a burden on the malls.

Good waste management systems and plans are currently being implemented in the Middle East and the regulations will definitely bring positive benefits on the regions waste programme as it presents an opportunity to review recycling and ensure it is in line with each government’s regulations.

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About Arafat Aden

Arafat Aden is an experienced manager of high risk public sector programmes whose experience is supplemented by extensive waste management. He currently works for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is the government department responsible for environmental protection, food production and standards, agriculture, fisheries and rural communities in the United Kingdom. Arafat has more than 10 years work experience, at least 7 in a managerial role working in the Climate, Waste and Atmosphere Directorate. AArafat has extensive experience in waste management and works with Local Authorities, community organisations, schools and MSE’s.
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