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Many of us are unaware about what happens to our waste once we dispose of it, even if we separate out the recyclables.


News has been breaking out about recyclables being returned from developing countries to their senders, developed countries where residents have been indoctrinated to reduce, reuse and recycle over decades.


In this session, which we held virtually on 31 October 2020, as part of our #wastehorrorstories saga, we bring forward issues which private waste management companies in the UAE would rather not talk about. One company, however, welcomed our invitation to discuss their work. We worked with them on a pilot project earlier this year.


The company, Bee'ah, handles waste management in the Emirate of Sharjah and has private waste management contracts in other emirates. Other private waste management companies in the UAE have to rely solely on waste management contracts where they are paid for their service by a local municipality, private establishments and private residential building management, so in order not to jeopardize their livelihood, they would rather not discuss any waste management or recycling "challenges."


This video is a compilation of highlights from the recording of a live community session attended by pre-registered participants.


In this video (in order of appearance):


Safi Roshdy, Founder of ahlanwasahlan think tank llc

Basem Abusneineh, Director of General Waste at Bee'ah

Yaghsha Mir, Research Intern at ahlanwasahlan think tank llc (8 October - 7 December 2020)

Ihsaan Muhammad, Student at Abu Dhabi Indian School


Below is the transcript along with the timestamps:


00:07 On being thankful


Safi: Usually when we start we say “alhamdolelah” because we need to realize that we’re blessed and that we’re living comfortable lives. We often refer to the fact that we have running water, electricity (there are too many lights on in this well-lit hotel room even though it’s supposed to be an “eco friendly hotel”), and we survived Covid-19. In countries around the world, people do not find themselves in a similar situation; in a lot of the countries which accept recyclables, for example. The processing of waste in developing countries which accept recyclables might not be done in the most environmentally-friendly or socially-friendly manner. 


10:01 An introduction to waste management


Safi: Many of us who are not involved in the waste management sector are not aware of what happens to the waste we dispose off in the garbage chute. We might think that it gets magically sorted out, but what usually happens is that, if there is a Material Recovery Facility (MRF), that’s where the journey to either landfill or diversion from landfill begins. This diversion from landfill is what is not usually very well understood. Many call putting something in the segregation bin recycling, but that’s not recycling, that’s just segregating, while recycling comes at the very end, if it actually happens.  


01:58 Zero Waste to Landfill


Basem: Next month, we will start Phase 2 of the pilot project for source segregation of waste in Sharjah. We started last year, with Safi, ahlanwasahlan, we worked on 500 apartments and the result was good; we covered 500 apartments along with the awareness sessions. Residents showed a very good level of participation, and we hope that in the coming years, the entire city of Sharjah and the whole United Arab Emirates (UAE), will participate in similar projects. This will be embedded in the culture, done on a daily basis in order to ensure that no new major investments need to be made into sorting facilities, and that all emirates, including Sharjah, will achieve the zero waste to landfill goal; this will in turn make the UAE one of the best countries in the world in waste management. 


03:02 Waste as a commodity

Basem: We consider waste to be a raw material that is to be converted in order to ensure a green and circular economy. Sharjah is spending a lot of money just to ensure that all the waste will be converted and recycled. 


Safi: Plastic is cheap; it’s cheap to produce, and right now the oil prices are down, so recyclables are not lucrative to buyers in terms of value. It has always been cheaper to produce PET from scratch, by contrast a special facility is needed to create rPET (recycled PET) from PET. At the MRF, you (Basem) are handling a lot of “recyclables” and there are buyers who would bid on the pricing of those recyclables. How has the pricing of recyclables changed, especially during this period with Covid-19, and in general with the changes in oil price. 


Basem: I have been working in the MRF since 2009. The price of recyclables between 2012 and 2015 was very high, plastics especially, even fibers, steel and aluminum cans as well. The commercial return from the MRF was good at the time, but prices started to drop significantly after 2015, even more after China and India banned the importing of many recyclables, including plastics and fibers. The prices of recyclables dropped by almost 50%, for example if one tonne of PET had an initial price of AED 2000, it dropped to AED 1000, and it was a similar case with cardboard. This created a disruption in the waste management sector locally and globally. During this time, many waste management companies in very developed countries started sending their recyclables to landfill because they did not have an infrastructure of recycling facilities. Ideally, investment should have immediately been made into recycling facilities in order to process this waste. I consider it poor planning on the part of the countries or companies involved. Nowadays, after Covid-19, the situation has completely changed. The price of recyclables has become worse, dropped by an extra 25%, so the cost of recovering and processing 1 tonne of PET is now higher than the price of selling it. However, Bee’ah will have a new recycling facility in Sharjah for HDPE and PP plastics soon. We already signed a contract with Unilever who will use the recycled plastic for their packaging. We are currently working with them on the first phase of this plan, and hopefully within a year we will have our own plastic recycling facility. 


07:12 Who is responsible for waste?


Yaghsha: A lot of firms put the burden of recycling on the consumers. Single use disposable packaging is being produced, for products which are to be consumed frequently and quickly, and it is left to the consumer to recycle it. I would like to pose an open question as to who should carry the burden of recycling this packaging. Should the burden be on the producers who are producing what is potentially packaged in an environmentally detrimental packaging or the consumers who are being expected to segregate the used packaging of all the different products they are using? Should the responsibility to recycle be 50% producer 50% consumer? Or should everyone reduce their reliance on single use packaging and move more towards sustainable alternatives. 


Basem: If the are no alternatives available to the producers, which can be accessible and affordable to their target market, it is very difficult to stop the single use plastic packaging from being produced. This is because the plastic economy is valued at $100 billion per year, employs many people and has many companies and manufacturers involved, for example, in the the manufacturing of plastic recycling machinery, so it’s not possible to stop this business. Governments are unable to stop this business because it will cost them a lot. Economically, stopping the production of plastic now is difficult, but in the future, I hope that we can find better alternatives. There is a lot of research now into plastic alternatives but the alternative has to be viable commercially, and affordable to those who would otherwise opt for the cheaper plastic. There are many companies in many countries around the world which started managing waste before us, Bee’ah has been in this field for 12 years, but there are countries in the region where waste management started 40 or 50 years ago and which, after a lot of research and studies, realized that source segregation has to be managed or else the entire waste management chain will be broken. So reducing, reusing and segregating at the source for recycling has to start with the people, with the community itself. This includes separating recyclables from organic waste, hazardous waste and hygiene waste. 


Safi: We feel sorry for those who are segregating their waste, if their extra work will amount to nothing because some of the segregated waste will not be recycled. Clean plastic is preferable, and there are many businesses sprouting up, and collecting only PET for example, because they can use it to produce clothes, T-shirts mainly, since this production would be easy and cheap. These companies  in turn encourage the printing of T-shirts from recycled plastic water bottles, but these T-shirts even if they are proclaimed to be of good quality, release microplastics, and the companies are only accepting the cleanest and easiest to recycle plastic; they are choosing to recycle and incentivize the recycling of plastic water bottles which are the creme of the crop in terms of what is recyclable, and for which reusable alternatives already exist. What are these companies doing about the actual challenge, the plastic waste problem? How are they incentivizing the recycling of the other not readily recyclable plastic? 


Ihsaan: In school, in 2016, our principal introduced a “No Plastic” campaign and since 2016 we are not allowed to bring with us plastic bottles. We, instead, bring flasks or any other metal bottle, except aluminum which can contaminate the drinking water. Single use water bottles are made of plastic so they are not allowed in school. 


Safi: Before this session, we had another session for school students who participated with videos and photos showcasing what they are doing to address waste in order to inspire us, adults, to do something about the waste we are generating. The students are very environmentally conscious, and they have to report back to the school about what they are doing at home to reduce waste. In many  business conferences I have been to, it is often stressed that environmental awareness needs to begin in schools, but from my experience, the schools are doing alright in terms of delivering the sustainability message, whereas by contrast, it is the adults who are lacking in awareness. 


12:58 The challenge of recycling


Safi: The greatest contributor to plastic waste is packaging. And while some of the packaging can help extend the lifetime and maintain the safety of the product, it can also be difficult to recycle because it requires a lot of energy and is expensive to recycle, and we are often not aware of this. Seeing that it is Halloween, a lot of candy being exchanged, and many candy wrappers are not getting recycled. The chips or crisps which many kids are having come in packaging which is not being recycled because it is multilayered and not easy to recycle. 


Safi: In order to be able to do anything about not readily recyclable waste, there needs to be a collection facility and storage space in order to achieve the volume required to make the tonnage of the waste material worth buying. The main issue is that no one would like to take responsibility for not readily recyclable material; no one wants your trash! If the sale price of the material is not lucrative, why would anyone want to store it? 


Basem: We are talking about millions of bags on a daily basis. Because plastic bags are often contaminated, there are no companies which are able to recycle 150 tonnes of plastic bags on a daily basis, and this is the case worldwide. We will have a waste-to-energy plant soon just to recycle this not readily recyclable waste and convert it into energy, otherwise now we have to send it to landfill. One of the major issues when it comes to waste management in this region and worldwide, is when plastic bags are given out and get disposed very easily. If you go to any grocery store and buy something for 25 fils, you will receive it in a plastic bag. It’s part of our culture. When you go to Carrefour, you can receive 50 bags and once you go home, you do not know what to do with them or use them to collect garbage. 


16:04 Is waste-to-energy the solution?


Safi: There is a misconception that because Bee’ah has a huge facility and is developing a waste-to-energy plant, that we do not need to worry. Should we be worried? 


Basem: There is a waste management hierarchy, and waste-to-energy is the second last step before sending waste to landfill. The first three steps are reduce, reuse and recycle, followed by waste conversion to electricity or gas. 


Safi: Why is recycling being encouraged so much? Why do we care so much about promoting recycling when we need to be aware that recycling is not easy? 


Basem: Let’s talk about the fiber (paper) cups which you receive from Starbucks or any other coffee shop; these ones are not recyclable - they are, but it is costly to recycle them so recycling companies do not prefer to take them. Let us talk about packaging which you receive from McDonald’s, Hardee’s, or all fast food outlets in general; when a burger is placed inside it, and it is stained with ketchup and cheese, then disposed off in the garbage and arrives at the Bee’ah MRF, where we can recover it and have it ready to sell to the recycling companies, they will not prefer it because it is contaminated and the packaging itself is light. Once this packaging is received by the recycling facility it will require a lot of expensive washing and processing. If the recycling companies do buy this contaminated material, they will do so at a very cheap price, and mix the material with better material in order to get a good end product out of it. 


Safi: When China stopped accepting the recyclables a lot of waste was being sent back and not being accepted for recycling. This waste was coming from very developed countries which had the awareness campaigns to reduce, reuse and recycle, going for a long time, and which have residents or citizens who are very conscious and have been diligently segregating their waste. Despite the source segregation, a lot of that waste was not being accepted for recycling because it is not valuable enough to be recycled compared to creating packaging cheaply from scratch. I agree that we as a community have a role to play, and this is why we have been working together on the pilot project for source segregation of residential waste in Sharjah, but also, we cannot escape the fact that as long as packaging which cannot be profitably recycled exists, there is going to be a problem, right? 


Basem: Yes, you are right. When we talk about recyclables being segregated at the MRF, in the countries where source segregation is being implemented, it would be in my opinion, the country or government’s problem that they do not have recycling facilities. The country or city municipality should build recycling facilities. In my opinion, saving the environment is a social responsibility and even a governmental responsibility. It does not matter if the recycling facilities are commercially viable or not, our environment is much more important than commercial concerns. It is understood worldwide that we should not expect recycling facilities to be commercially viable and that the objective of having them is to save our environment, our land for the new generation and to reduce our carbon footprint and pollution. 


Basem: We (the community) do not pay anything to dispose our waste. In Sharjah, residents do not receive a bill for waste disposal, it’s free of charge, whereas in European countries, this service is paid. There are many concepts, like Pay-As-You-Throw, for example. However, we (Bee’ah) do charge private companies for mixed waste disposal in order to ensure that they will follow our approach and send the recyclable materials separately, instead of sending us mixed waste which will cost us a lot to segregate in our facility. If the companies send us recyclables like wood, steel and plastics separately, we do not charge them, even though there are operational costs involved in processing these materials, and this is mainly done in order to encourage companies in Sharjah to segregate at the source. Companies, at the end of the day, are looking to reduce costs, so when we penalize them at AED 100-150 per tonnage of mixed waste disposed, they would usually assign a team on site to segregate the waste before disposal. 


23:07 An effort against greenwashing


Safi: When we have these sessions we have a lot of content and a lot of resources that we can make available and we have the means to do so right now, but we are looking to make these resources more accessible to more people. The objective is for the community to have the information they need to make informed decisions. Companies like to promote that they are being environmentally responsible, and like to demonstrate this by placing “recycling” bins in full view, for example, but this can mean that they are ignoring the actual problem and focusing on what is easier to do. On a more hopeful note, there are companies which are willing to invest in the infrastructure to divert more waste from landfill, there are innovations being developed which will help tackle the real problems, and there are individuals who are looking to invest in real solutions because they believe that it’s the right thing to do rather than a profitable venture. All of us are, including the new generation, can be influential in our fields of work, and hopefully the message will spread, and the contagion of responsibility will take over. We are getting there in certain milieus, and starting to think more about our impact, or being pressured to think more about it in certain cases, whatever works!


Safi: If the source of our energy was renewable, is it OK for us to keep producing items like these (a styrofoam stress ball packaged in clear plastic; the ball has the logo of Masdar on it). This item makes me question our reasoning. This (stress ball) is something that you are supposed to squeeze in order to relieve your stress. 


25:49 Unearthing what is buried


Ihsaan: Plastic was only discovered in the 1900s, what will we do with the plastic that is already in landfills? And what will we do with the plastic that has already being used? Is there any alternative way, an eco friendly way, other than waiting for it to decompose, to get rid of it? 


Basem: What I can guarantee is that in Sharjah, where we have had a landfill for 25-30 years, the landfill is going to be remediated in order to recover all the recyclables and send other materials to the waste-to-energy plant. The decomposition of plastic will take thousands of years, so any plastic bags extracted from landfill would be a little contaminated but will still be intact to an extent. I think we have to recover all of this plastic, remediate the landfill, open it and screen all the waste and send what we can to the waste-to-energy plant. If some of this waste can be recycled we can send it to recycling facilities. The past is in the past, what we need is for people, starting from today, to do better than the older generation. The new generation can change the world. 

28:06 Paving the way forward


Safi: What we don’t realize is that practically everything in our modern lives is partially made from plastic. A horror scenario, I often think about, has me wondering about the consequences of unleashing plastic eating organisms into this hotel for example. 


Safi: We have interns with us, and they have worked a lot on researching, what are referred to as the Big Plastic companies because they produce a lot of the items which are packaged in plastic and made available in the market on our supermarket shelves. 


Safi: There are innovations that are being developed, we cannot lose hope, and that’s the reason we are working and researching these issues. We are working to identify the challenges and to understand the fields we need to be recommending to anyone who is looking to pursue their higher studies in order for them to develop the background which will help them focus on the actual problems and hopefully solve them. 

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