INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Unveiling the Recycling Opportunity in UAE and Oman

We’ve all seen photos and videos of wildlife and marine life come in contact with plastic waste and the devastating impact it leaves behind. It makes one wonder as to why plastic waste, or any waste for that matter, ends up in the environment. Over the years, society has grown accustomed to convenience and a throwaway culture. This is further compounded by inadequate policy frameworks and a lack of investment in critical waste management infrastructure.

To abate this challenge, several innovative ideas are emerging from across the globe, and all walks of life, to tackle waste management and trigger changes in societal behavior. One concept widely regarded as a good solution is that of a Circular Economy (CE). CE is an economic system that promotes waste elimination, while retaining the value of resources as high as possible, for as long as possible. It takes inspiration from nature where the waste of one species becomes a resource for another, thus ensuring a never-ending cycle of regeneration. By adopting this model, societies and economies can build resilience and reduce their dependence on finite resources.

“In the UAE, total post-consumer plastic waste generation is approximately 1,500,000 MT, also with a mechanical recycling rate of 4%.”

UAE and Oman’s recycling opportunity

Situated in one of the wealthiest regions in the world, the GCC countries are also among the highest waste generators per capita. To better understand the gaps in plastics waste management, the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association recently commissioned two studies, one each for the UAE and Oman. The studies are designed to shed light on the prevalent waste management scenario in both countries, the current state of plastic recycling as well as challenges and opportunities in plastic waste management.

The studies found that of the ~420,000 MT[1] of post-consumer plastic waste being generated in Oman, only 4% is currently recycled and 85% is dumped in landfills. If we compare this with the European average of 15% recycling rate, Oman has an opportunity to recycle a further 40,000 MT of plastic waste. This can add substantial value to Oman’s economy in terms of value retention and value creation, job growth, economic diversification as well as environmental protection.

In the UAE, total post-consumer plastic waste generation is approximately 1,500,000 MT, also with a mechanical recycling rate of 4%. Almost 1,400,000 MT of this waste gets sent to sanitary landfills or is used for energy recovery. The recycling opportunity in the UAE is to the tune of 100,000 MT. (See Fig.1)

The two countries should aspire for recycling rates much higher than the 15% mentioned above. This will also help them achieve their targets towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well as their respective national visions: Oman Vision 2040 and UAE Vision 2021. Furthermore, it will enable brand owners to meet their announced targets on utilizing more recycled material in their packaging and will be a key market driver.

Key recommendations for improvement

To enable this transformation, the two countries will have to focus on some key issues:

  1. Reusability: This can have the single biggest impact on waste reduction but is also the most difficult to achieve. Prolonging the life of products will require incentives for society to move away from a use and throw culture and will need significant investments in product design and business model innovation.
  2. Resource efficiency: Regulators can provide incentives for companies that demonstrate impactful results in reducing wastage and avoidable packaging. Companies that invest in improving resource efficiency must be rewarded.
  3. Source segregation: This has been the key pillar for achieving waste to value across the globe. However, it remains a key concern in the GCC and will require government intervention to reach its true potential. Increased source segregation can greatly improve not only the recovery of valuable materials but also their quality. Regulators can partner with industry and NGOs to spread awareness on the benefits of source segregation.
  4. Harmonize waste management: Integrated and harmonized waste management systems country-wide can be beneficial to achieve higher recycling rates.
  5. Streamlining of material recovery: Investing in Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) can enhance the availability of recyclable material. This will have to be coupled with increasing the tipping fees at landfills and heavy fines for illegal dumping.
  6. Favorable standards: Regulators will have to develop recyclate standards jointly with industry but also regulate the market for recyclates to ensure their availability, price checks and quality control. It is also advised to repeal standards that mandate the use of additives such as the current oxo-degradable standards in the UAE that hamper the recycling process.
  7. Trade regulation: In order to capture value within the economy as well as avoid leakage of high-quality recycled material both countries can impose export restrictions. The focus should be on improving the recovery of value from in-country waste and as such, waste import restrictions must also be applied.
  8. Life cycle analyses: It is recommended that regulators and industry join hands to conduct life cycle impact assessments (LCIAs) on various material types and applications to determine the most environmental friendly material for each application, thus avoiding substitutions that may sound better but may actually have a worse environmental impact.
“In the UAE, total post-consumer plastic waste generation is approximately 1,500,000 MT, also with a mechanical recycling rate of 4%.”

Optimal plastic waste management can provide multiple economic, social and environmental benefits to the UAE and Oman. It requires a cultural transformation, persistence, innovation, technology and a spirit of excellence. All these ingredients already exist within the region, creating an enabling environment to lead by example.