Faced with the accumulation of garbage in the desert, the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) found a way to get rid of garbage, using incinerators that will transform the waste into electricity.
UAE, one of the world’s biggest oil exporters, is building one of the Gulf’s largest plants to convert waste into energy and alleviate its chronic waste problem and, at the same time, its dependence on gas-based power plants.
Environmental groups are not convinced and claim that it would be better to recycle, fertilize and change consumption habits that generate waste. They also warn of the risk of contamination by gas incinerators, which emit CO2.
But engineer Nouf Wazir, from waste treatment company Bee’ah, argues that the system will use non-recyclable waste.
“Not everyone knows that garbage is valuable,” said Wazir, head of the project. The Sharjah plant will start operating later this year and will burn more than 300,000 tonnes of waste every 12 months to power 28,000 homes.
The neighboring emirate of Dubai is building another plant, at a cost of 1.2 billion dollars, according to Hitachi Zosen Inova, a company associated with the project.
When completed in 2024, the Dubai unit will be one of the largest in the world, capable of receiving up to 1.9 million tons of waste per year, or 45% of the emirate’s household waste.
Moving from a desert region to a thriving business hub, the UAE has multiplied its waste production.
Energy consumption has also grown, 750% since 1990, according to the International Energy Agency.
With a population of 10 million people, five times more than 30 years ago, the UAE uses more electricity and produces more waste per capita than almost all other countries.
Authorities estimate the production of 1.8 kilograms of garbage per person per day.
The country has several landfills. There are six in Dubai, occupying an area of 1.6 million square meters, according to the city.
In the absence of other solutions, the city estimates that the landfills will occupy 5.8 million square meters in the emirate by 2041, the equivalent of 800 football fields.
Landfill fees are “almost non-existent, so it’s cheap and easy to dump all the materials into the desert,” said Emma Barber, director of DGrade, in Dubai, which develops clothing and accessories from recycled plastic bottles.
The country is trying to diversify its energy matrix, which depends on more than 90% of gas plants.
Last year, the UAE inaugurated the first nuclear power plant in the Arab world and has abundant resources of solar energy.
The country wants to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
– Separate, organize, recycle –
Proponents of the strategy say incinerators pose minimal pollution risks, but activists respond that there are more positive approaches to the environment.
Janek Vahk of Zero Waste Europe says that incinerating waste is “easier” than installing landfills, which take up a lot of space, but are far from being eco-friendly.
“The most beneficial for the climate and the environment would be recovery and composting,” Vahk told AFP.
“But this doesn’t happen because it’s easier to simply burn than to separate, organize and recycle”, he added.
The Brussels-based NGO called for a moratorium on new waste incinerators and an end to the use of old ones by 2040, warning that the electricity they produce makes intensive use of greenhouse gases, even compared to fossil fuels.
Vahk argues that incineration is “more efficient” in Nordic countries, which are cold, when it is also possible to harness the generated heat, but not in hot deserts.
Rami Shaar, co-founder of Washmen, a company that collects clothing and recycles for customers at the same time, said turning waste into electricity “is not necessarily green energy.”
“It’s like a solution to not extracting more oil, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem,” he said.
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