As 2021 rolled into 2022, a quiet revolution took place here in Dubai which is set to transform the emirate’s approach to sustainability and put us firmly on the path towards a greener and cleaner future.
Overnight, the cost of disposing of waste in landfill went up from 10 dirhams per landfill visit to 100 dirhams per tonne of non-recyclable waste deposited. Every business in Dubai will be directly affected, and we can expect some grumbles about this very substantial price rise, the initial burden of which falls on waste management companies like my own. Yet despite the increased costs to our operations, and the inevitable teething problems one can expect when changing contracts with clients, I am grateful for this bold but important step taken by HH Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Executive Council.
In fact, I would like to see the government go even further.
There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years, and particularly around the Dubai Expo, on the urgent need to create more sustainable lifestyles and a more circular economy. By circular economy I mean one where materials are reused, recycled or recovered locally, rather than just thrown into landfill.
We are all very aware now of our environmental vulnerability with looming threats from climate change, biodiversity collapse and plastic pollution. The idea of a more circular approach, where materials such as paper, plastic and food are saved to be recycled or composted is a very compelling one, in fact it’s our only hope of long-term survival on this finite planet. But building a circular economy means ensuring it makes economic sense, and this is where we have struggled until now.
In short, when it is so much cheaper to dispose of waste in landfill than it is to sort through it, separate out different materials and treat them so they can be reused, the majority of businesses will continue to use landfill. And when the cost of recycled materials is higher than that of using virgin materials, most businesses will choose the more profitable option. Without governments using legislative levers to change this playing field, we will never win the game and build a more sustainable society.
The new waste disposal fee structure sets a sliding scale of fees for different waste types, making it cheaper to dispose of recycling than non-recyclable waste and providing a clear economic incentive to change behaviours and drive up recycling. We will work closely with each of our clients to support them in their efforts to reduce overall waste and increase the proportion recycled – we expect the desire to keep their bills as low as possible to substantially increase interest in recycling. It might be bumpy at times, but this is essential if we are to meet Dubai’s ambitious but important target of zero waste to landfill in just eight years’ time.
Some have questioned why recyclable waste is subject to any charges at all under the new system. The answer is that not all ‘recyclable waste’ is equally recyclable – there are important issues of the quality of the materials as well as just the quantity. Most ‘recycling’ is a mixture of different items, some covered with food or other undesirables, which require sorting and cleaning. One of the purposes of the new directive is to allow recycling facilities to cover the costs of preparing the waste before turning it back into new materials – covering their significant operational overheads and increasing potential investment in these much-needed facilities.
There are still a few details to be ironed out. We are still waiting to see the detail of plans for treatment of food and organic waste, which is a major contributor to global warming when put in landfill. And we would love to see the government go even further, and use their regulatory powers to tax virgin materials in the manufacturing sector here which would help create more of a market for recyclables within UAE.
There is much to be done still, and to achieve our shared ambitions we will need to work together, to forge alliances between authorities, waste and recycling companies, manufacturers, small businesses and residents alike. But as we start the new year I am hugely encouraged by this brave, vital step that the Dubai government have now taken. This is the leadership we all need if we are to save the planet for our children and grandchildren.
This article originally appeared in Middle East Waste & Recycling Magazine