Rethinking plastic waste: From trash into treasure
By: Noora Mukhtar
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have emerged as major producers and exporters of a wide range of plastic products, including plastic pipes, sheets, films, packaging materials, construction materials, automotive parts, and household items. They are key players in the global plastics market due to their strategic location, favorable business environment, abundant petroleum resources, and access to key markets. Consequently, the plastic industry is a significant contributor to the regional economy, providing employment, revenue, and opportunities for growth and diversification.
The GCC polymer industry accounted for around 7% of the global plastics production in 2021, with exports of polymer products valued at around USD 37.6 billion in the same year. The Arabian Gulf region’s share in the global market is expected to continue to grow in the coming years, driven by increasing demand for plastic products in key end user industries, as well as ongoing investments in the region’s plastic sector.
The increasing production and consumption of plastics worldwide and in the GCC countries have outstripped the development of waste management infrastructure, leading to mismanagement of post-use plastic products along with other waste. To address these challenges, the GCC countries are exploring ways of transitioning towards a more sustainable and circular economy for plastics. As ESG considerations become increasingly important for investors and stakeholders, companies, and governments in the region recognize the importance of addressing environmental and social issues, including effective management of plastic waste. Plastic waste has become a key focus of ESG in recent years, and the GCC countries are demonstrating their commitment to sustainable development and positioning themselves as leaders in global ESG assessment and disclosure by taking steps to reduce plastic waste, promoting a circular economy for plastics, and encouraging the adoption of responsible business practices.
Figure 1: Mismanaged plastic waste, 2019
Source: Meijer et al. (2021). More than 1000 rivers account for 80% of global riverine plastic emissions into the ocean. Science Advances
Plastic recycling was virtually non-existent prior to the 1980s, and mismanaged plastic waste has become a global issue that cannot be ignored. It can alter habitats and natural processes, reducing ecosystems’ ability to adapt to climate change. The result directly impacts on the livelihoods, food production capabilities, and social well-being of millions of people., The majority of mismanaged plastic waste (MPW) in the world is attributed to Asian countries, where India and China are the largest contributors of MPW as seen in Figure 1, of which their large population sizes may partly explain this high level of plastic waste generation.
The GCC is currently among the least affected regions by plastic pollution in the world and with low levels of MPW volume, as shown in Figure 1. Nevertheless, the region is home to significant oil reserves and is a major producer and exporter of petrochemicals, which are used to produce plastic. As such, the GCC countries have a responsibility to take action to address the potential negative impacts of plastic waste, both domestically and globally. In addition, by implementing measures to reduce plastic waste and promote circular strategies, the GCC countries can help reduce the amount of MPW that enters the global environment and contribute to a more sustainable future for all. Circular plastics represent a great opportunity for socio-economic growth in the GCC region by creating new industrial value chains and jobs and reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. In addition, circularity can also help climate change mitigation efforts by reducing GHG emissions.
The GCC countries’ collective solid waste generation exceeds 90 million tons annually, with plastic waste accounting for 10 million tons, but only a modest share of 10% of plastic and metal waste is recycled, reused, or recovered on average. Implementing a policy change to increase plastic recycling could have positive economic and environmental impacts. For example, countries such as Germany and Japan have successfully integrated the circular economy concept into policy, achieving recycling rates of over 40% for plastics.
Ideally, the best option for plastic waste management is to prioritize environmental sustainability, minimize negative impacts on public health, and be economically feasible. A combination of different methods is also necessary to achieve these goals effectively. Additionally, the choice of management technique depends on various factors, including the type and quantity of plastic waste, available resources, and the environmental regulations and policies of the country.
It is essential to have a comprehensive national waste management strategy that includes multiple approaches to effectively manage plastic waste. All upstream and downstream levers need to be deployed to capture new opportunities and encourage efficient recycling models that help the transition toward a full circular economy. These models can include both (upcycling) and (downcycling) plastic waste into new products of higher or lower value respectively through mechanical and advanced recycling. Upcycling can be considered as a more sustainable method of recycling. It is mainly used for plastic waste that cannot be recycled further and creatively transforming it into other useful purposes of higher demand, value and quality. Downcycling is more widely achieved and deals with degraded materials that do not have enough structural integrity for circular or upcycled use. Some examples for upcycling and downcycling in both the industrial and post-consumer stages can be seen in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Possible recycling options for both industrial and post-consumer plastic waste
Source: GPCA research, 2023
Figure 3: Plastic waste recycling strategies in the GCC: Types, pros and cons and projects examples
Source: GPCA research, 2023
The big focus in the region remains on mechanical recycling and there is growing interest from machinery manufacturers and technology providers in the region. In addition, there are some efforts in the GCC to increase chemical recycling and Waste-to-Energy (WtE) technologies. However, they are not yet widely used in the region due to cost and regulatory challenges. The region’s first commercial scale WtE plant is located in Sharjah, UAE which is designed to divert up to 300,000 tons from UAE’s landfills per year and produce 30 MW of electricity. Figure 3 provides some insight into the advantages and disadvantages of recycling with some recommendations, which can help control and manage those disadvantages, along with some examples of prominent recycling projects in the region.
GCC petrochemical producers can attain several opportunities to meet sustainability targets and tap into new markets for recycled plastics through establishing global circular economy partnerships such as in Figure 4 and invest in new sustainable packaging solutions.
Overall, the GCC region has several emerging technologies and opportunities for plastic waste management, which can help to reduce the environmental impact of plastic waste, contribute to a more sustainable future, and create new economic opportunities for the region. The plastics recycling industry is at a nascent stage, and we are starting to see some investment coming in though a lot more is needed.
To compare the different plastic waste management techniques implemented or explored in the GCC, including landfilling, recycling, incineration, and waste-to-energy, as well as the potential of an effective plastic waste management strategy to the economy of the GCC countries, and the action steps that can be taken for activating plastics circularity to improve efficiency and align with the broader ESG scheme, GPCA will release a new report exclusively for members next month.
The report titled ‘Pathways Toward Circular Plastics in the GCC to Meet the ESG Agenda’ is planned to be released soon.
Watch this space and be the first to access the report.
Figure 4: Industry collaborations towards circular economy and recycling in the GCC
Source: GPCA research, 2023
 Frederic Ozeir, Dr. Siavash Rahimi, Jad Moussalli, and Ankit Gupta (2023), The $6 billion GCC recycling opportunity, Strategy& part of the PwC network.
 Oan Tiseo (2023), Plastic waste generation worldwide 2016, by select country, Statista.
 Moving towards the end of plastic pollution, UNEP, 2022.
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Gulf Petrochemicals & Chemicals Association