Making Progress in Dubai's Recycling Desert

Downtown Dubai, reycling program, waste

Downtown Dubai. Photo: Flickr/Jay Tamboli

Dubai does not exactly score high on the sustainability index. Ecology took a back seat while what was once a dusty trading port achieved spectacular growth the past 20 years. Dubai’s transformation, however, has not translated into more sustainable practices like recycling because locals and expats have focused on work, the 2008 real estate collapse and now an economic recovery.

But that growth and rampant development comes at a cost. Drive on Sheikh Zayed highway, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) longest road, into Sharjah, the neighboring emirate, and you can smell the results. The massive amounts of waste that is landfilled not only blankets the road with a rank odor, but is emitting greenhouse gases including potent methane into the atmosphere.

Dubai, however, has recently ramped up recycling efforts. Those origins lie in the Middle Eastern supermarket chain, Spinneys, which installed recycling bins in front of its stores several years ago. Other supermarket chains followed suit, allowing for the disposable of recyclables including paper, glass and plastic. Electronic machines in which consumers can deposit bottles and cans and in turn collect points for “rewards” are also becoming commonplace.

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But such recycling plans still require that residents separate their trash at home and then haul it to the nearest supermarket. For expats who often work long hours and are already harried by navigating through Dubai’s maddening highways, going out of their way to drop off recyclables is hardly convenient.

Streetside recycle bins in Dubai. Photo: Flickr/R I A Z

As for Emiratis, who are less than 20 percent of the local population in Dubai, a culture of recycling and ecological thinking is still in its infancy.

Meanwhile, private organizations pick up the slack. The Emirates Environmental Group (EGG), for example, takes over where Dubai’s municipality has fallen short. EGG has led an aggressive aluminum recycling campaign for several years, and works with businesses to collect other items from batteries to toner cartridges. Any NGO, however, can only do so much.

Change is underway. In February, Dubai introduced a pilot program that is starting with the delivery of almost 4,000 recycling bins to the homes of Emerati families. The initiative is one small step towards Dubai’s goal of zero waste by 2030, a far-off date that currently has benefitted from very few steps.

To the Dubai municipal government’s credit, however, it is doing more than just dropping off bins – recycling professionals are teaching families and maids everything from the basics on recycling to how to separate their household waste. For now, the service, operated by three privately owned waste management companies, is free for residents. The hope is that recycling becomes an daily habit and will scale throughout this city of 2 million people on the Gulf.

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Dubai’s opulent malls will start increasing their recycling efforts, too. Last year, the government required property management companies operating the malls to separate their waste, but most of them ignored the directive. Now the city’s municipal waste department has ratcheted up its efforts, demanding that malls segregate waste, invest in recycling bins and submit monthly reports on how recycling progresses or else they will be fined.

For Dubai and the rest of the UAE, these waste diversion efforts are urgent. Landfill space is running out because of the average daily amount of trash disposed that at last count in 2011 was 8,000 tons a day. That is over six pounds a day per resident. More must be done since currently as much as 90 percent of all garbage in Dubai ends up in a landfill. Education, growing awareness, and a local “My City, My Environment” campaign will hopefully change the mindset of Dubai’s residents.

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