Dubai is building a $1.1 billion waste incineration facility for power generation, and a smaller plant - the first of its kind in the UAE - will start commercial scale in Sharjah this year. Once the two other projects in Abu Dhabi are completed, the country may incinerate nearly two-thirds of the household waste it currently generates.
The waste-to-energy process produces emissions, making it suitable for final waste disposal only after all recyclable materials have been extracted. The projects could make it difficult to achieve the UAE's goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050.
But the Gulf state has few options to stop the huge accumulation of plastic, paper and organic waste in its desert suburbs. The UAE has many waste sorting facilities, some of which specialize in recycling building materials, tires, and electronics, but a few of them are geared towards converting household waste into new products.
Recycling plants also require significant investment, but they do not have the potential to produce energy, while shipping garbage to other countries is becoming more and more difficult. And countries that used to import garbage, such as China, no longer want to, while others, such as Turkey, are facing pressure from environmentalists to stop.
John Ord, UK business manager at engineering firm Stantec, said China's recent ban on importing waste "has really changed economic drivers, and we suddenly have a lot of waste to deal with."
feed the monster
In addition, the UAE's decision to incinerate most of its waste is unusual, as only about 11% of the world's waste is incinerated. While proponents argue that the process prevents landfill build-up and generates energy, it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and hinders recycling.
“It could be like feeding a monster,” Ord said.
In the case of Sharjah; Opening the factory could close its landfill, and Bee’ah, the company that manages Sharjah’s waste, says it will create green spaces, install a 120 megawatt solar power facility on top of it, and producehydrogen of garbage in order to refuel garbage trucks.
"He wants to build more waste-to-energy facilities in the region, including in neighboring Saudi Arabia," said Khaled Al Huraimel, CEO of Bee'ah. "They're starting from scratch, and we're starting from there."