The past year has brought challenges that no one could have ever anticipated as Covid-19 swept the globe and put cities and countries in lockdown. As a result, action on climate change, particularly the urgent need to deal with the scourge of plastics waste, slid down the list of priorities for many world leaders. This is understandable; however, it is crucial to realize that environmental catastrophe poses an equally dangerous risk to human health and life as coronavirus. As we celebrate Global Recycling Day on 18th March, we must put recycling back on the agenda.
Even in ‘advanced’ economies, recycling is not always well managed, and the murky reality is that a lot of the plastic that is thrown into recycling bins is low-grade, dirty and mixed which is then exported to poorer countries, where it is either recycled unsafely and to low standards, or more often, burned, landfilled or leaked into the environment.
This has to change. If we are to manage our waste in a sustainable way and leave a planet for future generations to enjoy, we first need to start reducing our unnecessary waste and we also need to find more local solutions for recycling and recovering what we do produce. Each of us has a role to play – producers, the public, governments and waste management companies like my own.
I am heartened to see the progress that UAE is starting to make in this regard, setting the trend for the rest of the region. Over the last couple of years, we have seen the evolution of multiple forums that provide a platform for relevant stakeholders to work together and reshape the future of plastics reuse and recycling in the UAE. What you witness on these critical forums is not just high-level deliberations or broad sustainability pledges, but in fact pragmatic solutions and actions with direct responsibility assigned to all involved. Commitments to invest in the necessary infrastructure are starting to follow and a recycling ecosystem is slowly emerging. Growing public pressure is another considerable factor playing in; a new generation of more exposed and environmentally conscious residents – expats and locals alike – are demanding and expecting change.
The initial steps are slow, and hesitant, but we are moving in the right direction. With landfill levies on the horizon and substantial investments on recycling/reprocessing plants, UAE is set to address its plastic waste issue. Thus far, the investment focus has been on the ‘low hanging fruit’ i.e. PET (the clear plastic used mainly for drinks bottles) due to its high recyclability and relative ease of recovery; we already see robust collection schemes for PET bottles in place backed by both existing PET recycling infrastructure and future capacity being built. We now need to augment this progress with further investments in other plastic streams, for example LDPE or ‘soft’ plastics, that are slightly more complex to process, but which otherwise cause severe damage to the environment.
There is no doubt that recycling is a big mountain to tackle – the volumes of waste we generate as a society are mind boggling, and the make-take-use-throw model of public behaviour is challenging to change. It is a challenge, however, that the UAE authorities are ready to take on. They know that waste management needs to be part of a broader circular economy, based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Currently, only 10% of world plastic waste is recycled effectively, with the number particularly low for the emerging markets. Coming from the emerging world, Averda is unfazed by the prospect of tackling this challenge and investing in solutions in regions where infrastructure and public awareness in underdeveloped or non-existent.
The drive to achieve more sustainable and circular economies is one with which the whole world is concerned, and we cannot afford to let the Covid pandemic turn into a major setback. For the emerging world, the challenge is all the more urgent, and the price of failure more dangerous for the economically vulnerable. It is also an opportunity for wealth creation – recycling creates 6 times more jobs than landfilling and 36 times more than incinerating. On Global Recycling Day, there is no time to waste – here in UAE, and in our other markets around the world, we at Averda are proud to be part of the solution.