JEDDAH: As is the case in many other parts of the world, the combination of population growth, urbanization and economic expansion has not only increased personal consumption in the Middle East, but is also generating colossal waste.
Five Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait – rank in the world’s top 10 in terms of solid waste generation per capita.
Thanks to their oil wealth, consumer spending in these countries has grown in recent decades to become a key driver of national economies. But like in many advanced countries, a consumer culture has created mountains of waste, most of the content of which is non-biodegradable and extremely harmful to the environment.
Saudi Arabia alone produces around 15 million tonnes of waste a year, 95% of which ends up in landfills, polluting the ground and releasing greenhouse gases, including methane, into the atmosphere for decades.
What isn’t buried often ends up as litter on city streets, in the form of discarded polythene bags, fast food containers, plastic bottles and empty soda cans.
Between the start of 2020 and the first half of 2021, Saudi Arabia only recycled 5% of its total waste, including plastic, metal and paper.
To reduce waste generation, protect fragile ecosystems and make the most of reusable materials, Saudi Arabia can rely on the concept of “circular economy”, a closed-loop system that involves the approach of the 3 A: Reduce, reuse and recycle.
The main agent of change in this effort is the Saudi Investment Recycling Company, which was established in 2017 as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Public Investment Fund.
SIRC seeks to divert 85% of hazardous industrial waste, 100% of solid waste and 60% of construction and demolition waste from landfills by 2035. The only types of waste not covered by its mandate are those created by the military and nuclear energy. , both managed by specialized bodies.
The circular economy model opens up immense opportunities, whether in terms of products, energy creation or services, which can make a major contribution to the diversification of the Saudi economy away from oil and its derivatives. , in line with the objectives of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. reform strategy.
Saudi Arabia aims to invest nearly SR24 billion ($6.4 billion) in waste recycling by 2035 as it tries to shift to a more sustainable waste management system. It will invest about SR 1.3 billion in construction and demolition waste and about SR 900 million in industrial waste. Investments in municipal solid waste will exceed SR20 billion, while investments in other types of waste will amount to more than SR1.6 billion.
There are several ways to create value in a circular economy. One of these is ‘waste-to-energy’, which involves drying and incinerating waste, raw sewage and industrial sludge to power steam turbines.
Burning garbage produces carbon dioxide, but leaving it to decompose in landfills results in 20 to 40 times more greenhouse gas emissions, in the form of methane, over a period of years.
Unsurprisingly, the circular economy approach is gaining ground. In 2020, when Saudi Arabia held the presidency of the G20, the Kingdom proposed to allies the concept of a circular carbon economy as a means of mitigating the build-up of carbon in the atmosphere.
But a circular economy model cannot succeed without the active participation of large companies, small entrepreneurs and the general public.
Experts say building recycling facilities in the Kingdom is only part of the solution; it must go hand in hand with efforts to instill in the Saudi population a culture of domestic recycling and responsible consumption.
“We need to invest in infrastructure but also we need to provide education and create awareness programs,” Ziyad Al-Shiha, CEO of SIRC, told Arab News in October. “Once we hit 25-35% recycling, we can say to the public, ‘Look, it’s your effort and that’s the result we’re reporting to you.'”
Progress has already been made in promoting environmentally responsible behavior at the community level. Saudi highways are better maintained than before. Even in cities, sewers are no longer clogged with cigarette butts, tissues, paper cups and discarded food wrappers.
These improvements result in part from the introduction of penalties; the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and Housing can now issue fines of $133 to anyone caught throwing or spitting in a public place.
But environmental concerns and public interest in recycling and reducing household waste have also increased markedly, thanks to campaigns by civil society groups.
One such group, Mawakeb Alajer, has worked for 17 years to encourage recycling at the community level in Jeddah by providing sorting facilities where the public can drop off a wide range of recyclables, from paper and plastic waste to furniture. unwanted items and even old wedding dresses. .
“As a thrift store, we encourage people to donate what they don’t need to charity, which helps protect the environment by reducing waste,” said spokeswoman Sara Alfadl. by Mawakeb Alajer, at Arab News.
“We believe that everyone plays a role in the community and we provide a service that everyone can benefit from. We sort everything we receive. It is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and difficult. Fortunately, most of the items we receive, whether it’s clothing or recyclable waste, are in good condition.
In cooperation with local businesses, truckloads of recyclable materials are brought to the Mawakeb Alajer facility where they are sorted and then sold, donated or sent to be reused, recycled or repurposed. In the process, the group helps to gradually change public attitudes.
“Awareness is still in its infancy but is spreading nonetheless,” Alfadl said.
Schools have begun to play an important role in shaping the attitudes of the next generation, adopting “environmental literacy” projects that give students the opportunity to learn by participating in recycling programs and science projects in school.
For their part, many Saudi businesses are adapting to the circular economy model, in line with the Kingdom’s pursuit of sustainable development goals.
Mona Alothman, co-founder of Naqaa, a local provider of business-to-business environmental sustainability solutions, said many companies are now incorporating recycling and waste reduction into their business models.
“It’s not just a phase,” she told Arab News. “Many Saudi businesses are adopting ingenious ways to reduce, reuse and recycle their office supplies and better manage their waste, among other things.
“A lot of things have changed in recent years. Regulations have become stricter in order to meet international standards. Our core business philosophy revolves around sustainability, and recycling is only part of the picture.
“Businesses today are not only applying our recommended solutions to office waste, but are also launching campaigns to promote and encourage people to be more aware of how they dispose of their waste.”
This multi-pronged approach, encompassing education, charitable programs, stricter rules and penalties, encourages commercial establishments in the Kingdom to adopt environmentally friendly practices and communities to think more about the effects of lifestyle. on the environment.
Alfadl and his colleagues at Mawakeb Alajer believe that Saudis can do a lot to encourage their employers, neighbors and local authorities to implement greener practices in homes and workplaces.
“I think recycling is going to accelerate here in Saudi Arabia,” Alfadl said. “With growing awareness, what was once a short-term project or initiative has become a necessity.
“Our approach has always been bottom-up. When employees join the sustainability journey with their actions, it won’t be long before others follow suit and create a community of people who follow the same approach.