I spent last weekend in Abu Dhabi – not catching a bit of winter sun, unfortunately, but cocooned inside an air-conditioned modern hotel. I was there to present to Middle Eastern private sector waste professionals, interested to gain a European perspective on the likely future for the industry in their part of the world. It was an interesting challenge thinking about what they could learn from the European experience.
Who would have thought 20 years ago we’d be recycling 42% of household waste in England by this point. Or that it would feel like we still had much further to go, with 70% recycling targets in Scotland and Wales seeming realistic goals? But the revolution in our waste management practice that has led to a huge leap in recycling rates has been driven by measures like landfill taxes and requirements to sort. Producers and collectors have had to innovate to find alternative ways to tackle waste materials as disposal has become more complicated or expensive.
Living in a Pickles paradise?
But in Abu Dhabi, one thing they have a lot of is desert. It costs as little as $3 to empty a truck on a landfill site, and daily domestic waste collection is standard practice. And there seems to be no immediate prospect of regulatory change, despite some developing aspirations to decrease waste. So, what could I possibly tell them?
My first suggestion was that the waste industry should lobby for waste regulations. In the UK, waste companies initially sought to resist change – but have subsequently seen a massive growth in the value of this sector of the economy. Waste managers in the Middle East can learn from this, and should take every opportunity to press for a new legal framework that necessitates a wider range of services.
Secondly, I highlighted the way that changes in the way Europe manages waste has compelled both our waste industry and our use of materials to become more efficient. For the waste management sector, this means opportunities to get ahead of the competition and win more work by innovating so as to cut the cost of services to the end user.
Thirdly, we’ve become much more serious about realising the value of waste materials. Even with the minimal constraints on landfill in Abu Dhabi, the world market for recyclates means that the economic case for collecting aluminium, paper and plastics would stack up – and removing this material at least from the waste stream would be a big step in the right direction.
I was impressed at the focus that the people I spoke with had on how to bridge the gap between current waste management practice in Abu Dhabi and a model more recognisable to us in the UK. I wouldn’t be surprised to see big changes there in coming years. Not so long ago, the UK was seen as the “dirty man of Europe.” It’s great to consider our performance from their perspective. We’ve come such a long way in recent years, we genuinely do have a lot that we can tell them about how to clean up waste management.