Pulling down barriers to the Circular Economy – More ME Recycling/WTE schemes pave the way ahead

There’s increasing appetite worldwide for more sustainable living, but people need to be given more ways to make a difference.

Last month, we explored the scale of the global waste problem, and how the Middle East is poised to lead a regional acceleration towards circular living. This month, we’re looking at some of the key barriers to circular economy adoption, and how the Middle East is responding to the reality of its waste generation issues post-COP26.

People are willing, but not able, to live more sustainably

A new global survey was released on 18 November courtesy of the World Economic Forum in partnership with SAP and Qualtrics. It asked 11,500 people from all over the world about their recycling and sustainability habits, preferences and wider attitudes towards addressing the major problems involving waste generation.

Its results show that awareness and engagement on these issues is real and growing. 64% of people worldwide believe that they have a personal responsibility to act on climate change by living more sustainably. 84% of people feel that it is extremely important for them to recycle whenever they can.

With these levels of willingness, why are recycling and circular economy practices still so marginal in practice? The survey shows that the top barrier worldwide is the lack of established programmes and services. This was the main reason cited by 42% globally, while 25% said the biggest problem was not knowing how to participate in recycling, 16% felt it was too inconvenient, and 15% expressed a lack of trust in recycling programmes to achieve tangible green results.

The Middle East was broadly in line with these global sentiments. The split on the perceived top barriers to recycling by ME respondents was as follows:

Lack of programmes/services – 40%

Not knowing how to participate – 33%

Too inconvenient – 14%

Lack of trust in recycling programmes (to achieve results) – 12%

While the lack of programmes remains the top barrier to effective recycling in the Middle East, there’s also a clear issue around public awareness too. A full 8% more people than the global average chose this as their biggest barrier. So, while there needs to be more ways open to ME citizens to recycle and live sustainably, there also needs to be greater engagement with the public on how they can get involved. 

Expanding ME facilities and programmes chase the circular economy opportunity

November has seen a distinct ramping-up of circular economy initiatives in the Middle East. This is due in part to the galvanising effect of the COP26 talks and partially because of the growing acceptance that this is the way to tackle the region’s endemic waste problems while harnessing new and lucrative revenue streams. The circular economy is now expected to evolve into a vehicle for $4.5 trillion-worth of economic benefits worldwide by 2030, while unlocking all manner of additional societal benefits from improved public health to greater equality and transparency.

At the strategic level, the UAE announced its aim to double its sales of solutions for the circular economy to $19 billion by 2030, and replace 250,000 metric tons of fossil fuels with the use of recycled and waste-based raw materials in its national production facilities by 2025. A major circular economy coup for the UAE came this month in the form of the signing of a Joint Project Development Agreement between Tadweer and Etihad Airways to construct the first Waste-to-Sustainable Aviation Fuel (WtF) plant in the Middle East. Once constructed, the plant will turn 4 million tonnes of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) into sustainable aviation fuel every year.

As well as macro-economic plans and approaches, the importance of individual schemes cannot be overlooked. November marked the one-year anniversary of RECAPP, the UAE's first free-of-charge door-to-door recycling service, which has developed a community of 10,000 registered users and collected 85 metric tonnes of recyclables. On average, 500 kg of recyclables are collected every day through the RECAPP app, providing tangible results and boosting public awareness with every new registered user.

Moving across to Saudi Arabia, the government has earmarked an estimated $10.4 billion for new circular economy initiatives in support of its target to reduce waste landfill from around 95% today to 0% by 2035. The Saudi Investment Recycling Company (SIRC – an offshoot of the Public Investment Fund) is the driving force behind the country’s circular economy efforts. SIRC’s strategy targets twelve separate elements of waste, including raw sewage, construction/demolition debris, solid municipal waste and agricultural sludge.

Oman was also recently making headlines with its own major circular economy commitments. Six major projects linked to waste-to-energy (WTE) and waste reprocessing have been announced, representing a combined opportunity of over $1.5 billion. Specific projects include two biogas schemes in Muscat, and a major Waste-to-Energy project with a projected capacity of 130-140 MW.

No time to waste – Rapid Circular Economy growth is a vital pillar of ME sustainability efforts

With the end of the year in sight, and COP26 fresh in the minds of governments and climate change activists everywhere, the need to bring disruptive economic models to the fore is more urgent than ever. The Middle East’s waste generation problem remains endemic, with many of its countries sporting some of the worst ‘per capita’ waste production rates in the world. However, the public and political will to change is evidently present, and through the adoption of more schemes, made more widely available and clearly advertised, the adoption of circular economy practices can really start to get moving across the region.