WHERE SOME ONLY SEE RUBBISH, OTHERS SEE OPPORTUNITY

Do not waste by excess, for Allah does not love the wasters’ says the Holy Koran. Yet the recycling industry in the mostly Muslim Middle East still does very little to recycle its waste. With so much desert to spare the temptation has always been to dig a hole in the sand and bury it there, leaving it to a later generation to deal with any toxic consequences.

Cheap oil has provided vast economic benefits, especially for the Gulf states, but wealth rarely encourages its beneficiaries to be less profligate. It is a fact of history that rapid economic expansion leads inevitably to more pollution and more waste. An increase in GDP leads to more consumer spending and more industrial output.

However, acknowledgement that oil and gas are finite resources has led the Gulf states to look seriously at diversifying their economies and, as they have done so, it has begun to dawn that the old methods of dealing with waste are unsustainable. In 2011, the UAE launched an initiative to ameliorate the amount of unnecessary waste the country was producing annually. It was estimated that more than half of all waste being dumped at landfills was recyclable. The government issued instructions to all commercial operations to separate their waste into paper, glass, metal and plastics, providing colour-coded containers for them to do so. Legal action could be the consequence for anyone failing to comply.

While the government’s actions were welcomed, it was also pointed out that separating and collecting recyclable waste is one thing, selling the waste on profitably to be processed is often quite another. Some processors, for instance, will not accept coloured glass.

It is this struggle to make recycling cost effective that serves as a block to its establishment as a way of life in the region. Left solely to the private sector, sustainable waste management will continue to struggle.

Israel has made large strides to meet the challenge of waste by constructing the Hiria Recycling Park, near Tel Aviv. Until 1999, the area was an ugly landfill, which has since been cleansed and the facility is now one of the largest recycling centres in the world. Methane gas from the former landfill, now a giant mound serving as the centrepiece of what will one day become, at 2,000 acres, one of the biggest urban parks in the world, is recovered and sold to local industry. In other parts of the facility, waste is reduced in size by up to 90% and the bio-gas which is a byproduct of the process is used to generate electricity. Plants for the recycling of tyres and building materials have also been added.

The facility, open to the general public, also serves to inform the uninitiated that recycling is not just an indus- trial process. Water plants such a lilies are natural purifiers and are used at Hiria to process sewage and the toxic water produced by the refuse, which arrives there daily.

Israel has also recently invited tenders for the construction of a plant to convert over 1000 tonnes of waste a day into ‘green’ electricity, by means of the anaerobic digestion method which uses microorganisms to break down biodegradable material to produce bio-gas. The project, due to be operational in 2016, is funded by public and private money. Minister of Environmental Protection, Gilad Ardan, noted “Throughout the world people understand that this is the new economy, turning trash into a resource, creating new jobs, reducing dependency on oil and generating energy without harming the environment.”

E-waste is an increasing problem in the modern world. Computers, televisions, smartphones – anything electrical – have a short lifespan. The rapid advance of technology renders year-old devices, if not obsolete, easily discarded for the latest model. From plastic to glass to rare earth metals, the vast majority of e-waste ends up in landfills in developing parts of the world such as China.

Often the problem is economy of scale. Particularly in the case of rare earth metals, since so little is used in a single unit and it is so difficult to extract and simply not cost effective to do so in low quantities.

Cheaper ways of separating and extracting, especially rare earth metals, are being developed. With no shortage of capital and investment already being made in the region’s science and technology sectors, efficient recycling of this kind is an area Middle East governments would do well to pursue. One company, Akhdar, based in Dubai, recognises that the greenest solution to recycling old computers is to refurbish them and find a market to sell them to. If that is not possible, the company separates the materials in the machines for recycling and sends the electronic circuitry to Britain where the rare earth metals are extracted. In both instances, the client receives a percentage of money made.

Businesses are always looking for ways to add value to their products. An increasingly common way of doing so is by means of an active corporate social responsibility operation. In other parts of the world, large corporations especially are competing with each other to display their’green’ credentials’, to prove to the general public that they care about environmental matters and that their businesses are ecologically sustainable.

It is easy to be cynical and suggest that what they re- ally care about is profits, but whatever the motivation for their new-found concerns, businesses seen to be taking steps to reduce their impact on the environment find favour with their customers. There is currently a lack of awareness in the Middle East regarding the importance of recycling. The cultural change that has begun will take a while to catch on, which gives time for the region to catch up on the experience and expertise needed to make a profitable business from recycling and for it to match or even exceed the efforts made elsewhere in the world to live in a more sustainable way.