Battling waste with haste – UAE and India are pushing ahead with sustainable solutions

With India launching the world's biggest COVID-19 vaccination programme, and the UAE’s rollout enjoying great success, both countries are looking at ways to overcome the ecological fallout of the pandemic. Alongside the mountain of medical waste produced by the efforts of battling the virus, sustainable solutions are being brought to bear on all major waste streams impacting both countries.

It’s a pivotal time for waste management, with the hopes of attaining a circular economy combining with the fears and genuine risks attached to mounting levels of globally produced waste. The necessary response to both sides of this issue is to forge ahead with increasingly innovative and technologically sophisticated waste management solutions, backed by public money and private enterprise to introduce them on a large scale.

This is exactly what is happening in the UAE, with India also beginning to unlock its vast potential to manage waste sustainably. With new concepts, facilities and technologies being introduced with greater speed and confidence, the very shape of waste management is changing in both regions.

Counting the ecological cost of COVID

From PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to packaged goods, containers and take-out foods, the pandemic created a massive and near instantaneous rise in the usage of single-use plastics and other recyclable waste types. Before the pandemic, the GCC region produced 150 tonnes of medical waste every day. In late April, the emirate of Dubai alone was producing more than 350 tonnes per day.

However, alongside more waste, the UAE has also been producing better solutions regarding the need for PPE. For example, Sharjah-based Immensa Technology Labs is able to use 3D printing up to produce 25,000 protective masks each week. These masks are made from Polylactic Acid (PLA), a wholly biodegradable corn-based plastic that can be safely melted and reused.

Tadweer has been at the forefront of efforts to clean up the waste in the pandemic’s wake. At the end of December 2020, it opened ‘Eco Park’, an environmentally friendly waste treatment complex with a processing capacity of 7,500 tonnes per year. It has dedicated facilities for handling medical and hazardous waste sustainably, as well as an advanced incinerator specifically for burning animal carcasses in an environmentally responsible manner. Together, these incinerators are expected to divert up to 14,000 TPA (tonnes per annum) of waste.

Looking beyond the clean-up of COVID, the Abu Dhabi Department of Energy (DoE) has plans to accelerate the growth of WTE (Waste to Energy) capacity building in the emirate and across the UAE. Late last month they announced the launch of the Policy for Energy Production from Waste (EFW), with a view to boosting WTE efficiency levels as well as overall capacity. The policy outlines how companies will need to meet conditions on safety, reliability, efficiency and overall sustainability of the subsequent operations of their WTE projects. This an important government policy for the UAE and the wider region, as it formalises Abu Dhabi’s ambition to be a WTE leader while signalling its willingness to support innovation and investment in this vital emerging area of waste management and energy production.

India: Sitting on a mountain of trash that’s also treasure

Along with China, India’s approach to waste management is perhaps the most important to get right, given the sheer volume of waste it produces and then mismanages. Across the country, only 60% of all produced waste is collected, and of that only 15% is processed – the rest is diverted to landfill or left entirely. This state of affairs has led to India becoming the world’s number 2 creator of greenhouse gases, with 14 of its cities ranked among the world’s most polluted.

However, India’s waste management market is predicted to grow to reach $14 billion by 2025, representing an annual growth rate of 7%. Alongside public health and ecological concerns, this growth is being driven by the increasing awareness of circular economy theories and the general understanding that waste can be inherently valuable. India already has a vast informal waste management sector comprised of waste pickers, sorters and traders. However, to truly tackle its waste situation, India aims to move well beyond the inefficiencies of this setup. A recent Accenture study suggested that India can unlock approximately half a trillion dollars of economic value by 2030 through the adoption of circular economy business models.

Already, we are seeing India making moves towards realising this goal. From its recent opening of a Hyderabad 19.8MW WTE plant (the first in the country’s southern region), to its participation in the EU-India Joint Declaration on Resource Efficiency and Circular Economy last year, it seems that the world’s second largest country in terms of population and generated pollution is gearing up to go circular this decade. 

Charting the way ahead

The examples of both the UAE and India are highly informative and relevant to the current global situation on waste management. The UAE is relatively small, but it experiences some of the highest levels of per capita waste generation in the world. India is huge, but contrastingly is among the world’s lowest per capita waste generators, though its massive population and municipal overstretch largely negate this beneficial trait. Their respective approaches to handling their waste issues – through technological innovation, education and circular economy models – span the scope of viable solutions that are applicable to other nations. As this year unfolds, both countries’ experiences in evolving their waste management practices will be instructive to the wider world.