RIYADH: Once upon a time, humanity produced a small amount of waste. Food was unwrapped, fruit and vegetable peels were given to animals, and horse and camel droppings were used as fertilizer or dried and burned for heating. Most of what came from the earth went straight back into the earth with little or no damage to the environment.
Today we live in an age of consumerism in which multitudes of products are purchased and the resulting garbage is disposed of with little or no consideration for its ill effects. Many single-use products are manufactured and distributed at considerable expense, only to be used momentarily, then thrown away forever.
Saudi Arabia produces no less than 15 million tonnes of trash a year – most of which ends up in giant landfills, full of dangerous toxins that seep deep into the ground.
Fortunately, there are now signs of radical change, both in the Kingdom and in the world. An emerging concept known as the “circular economy” argues that any form of solid waste can be the raw material for a new and more valuable resource.
It’s a contemporary response to alchemy – the medieval quest to turn low matter into gold.
The circular economy involves both upcycling (the process of turning waste into higher-value products) and downcycling (in which discarded materials are used to create something of lower quality and less functionality. ).
Plastic is an obvious starting point. Heralded as a miracle substance almost a century ago, it has become ubiquitous in our grocery stores, clothing, cars and electronics.
This initial enthusiasm for plastic gradually led to a sober realization that it takes up to 500 years to decompose – presenting an environmental calamity that we witness daily on the streets littered with plastic bags, cups, bottles. and straws.
But did you know that around 50% of plastic waste in Saudi Arabia is collected for recycling?
Once cleaned and processed, this used plastic can be turned into granules, which in turn are melted down to form anything from household tiles to benches to roadside edges. Japan is the leader in this regard, now recycling nearly 90% of its plastic waste.
In fact, it is normal in Japan for households to have more than half a dozen different containers for different types of waste, in order to facilitate sorting for recycling.
The Kerala Indian Highway Research Institute has developed a recycled, plastic-derived road surfacing material that is more durable than conventional tarmac and able to withstand heavy monsoon rains.
Household waste can also produce the energy needed to heat homes and charge the electric cars of the future.
When organic matter (meaning everything from apple hearts to onion skins) breaks down, it produces methane – a source of energy. Other solid wastes – for example, cardboard and wood – can be incinerated, again to provide energy.
These processes are collectively referred to as “Waste to Energy” (WtE). Methods also exist for filtering the resulting fumes, reducing WtE carbon production to almost zero.
A 2017 study by the Department of Engineering Sciences at King Saud University concluded that Jeddah alone has the potential to generate 180 megawatts (MW) of electricity from garbage incineration and 87 , An additional 3 MW from synthetic gas (syngas) from waste.
Another study by Dr Abdul-Sattar Nizami, assistant professor at the Center of Excellence for Environmental Studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, estimates that 3 terawatt-hours per year could be generated if all of Saudi Arabia’s food waste were used in syngas plants. .
Wastewater is another valuable resource, in two ways. First, like household waste, wastewater produces methane, which can be harnessed to produce energy. Second, wastewater can be treated and reused for irrigation and industrial purposes.
The potential gasification of solid waste and sewage is particularly relevant to Saudi Arabia, which derives much of its freshwater from desalinated seawater, every drop of which is precious.
The Saudi government has already understood this and is taking proactive steps to generate at least half of its energy needs from renewables by 2030. “Waste of energy” will undoubtedly play a role in this new development. paradigm.
In the city of Marselisborg in Denmark, methane derived from wastewater now generates more than 150 percent of the electricity needed to operate its water treatment plant. The surplus energy is used to pump drinking water to homes and offices.
Much of Saudi Arabia’s wastewater is filtered and reused, presenting an opportunity to produce cheap and plentiful energy.
A similar philosophy can be applied to land use. Areas currently discarded as wasteland can be redesigned as beautiful public spaces.
King Salman is a pioneer in this regard. Until his tenure as governor of Riyadh province, Wadi Hanifah, the dry riverbed that winds along the western edge of Riyadh was an unsightly dumping ground for garbage and industrial effluent.
In collaboration with an international team of landscapers, botanists and water management experts, King Salman transformed the wadi into the exquisite winding park that it is today, with its thousands of trees, its lush wetlands and charming picnics.
Another example of wasteland regeneration is the Highline of Manhattan – an elevated railway line that was abandoned after New York Harbor closed in the 1960s.
Instead of being demolished at great expense and expense, this rusty horror has been turned into a pretty green walkway through the concrete jungle and is today a major tourist attraction.
And just as wasteland can be reused to create attractive new spaces, many artists are using discarded materials to create stunning sculptures, all while making powerful claims about our abuse of the planet.
Milanese artist Maria Cristina Finucci used two tons of plastic bottle caps and thousands of red mesh food bags, placed in recycled plastic containers, to spell out the word “HELP”.
One reviewer described the work as “a cry from humanity … to stem the environmental disaster of marine pollution”.
Likewise, two Singaporean artists, Von Wong and Joshua Goh, created a work titled “Plastikophobia” – an immersive art installation made up of 18,000 discarded plastic cups, to raise awareness about single-use plastic pollution.
After decades of short-termism and willful denial of environmental destruction, comprehensive smart waste management policies are still in their infancy. The know-how and the technology are there. They just need to be put into practice.
The Kingdom is already moving in the right direction. Its Saudi Green Initiative, launched in March, calls for regional cooperation to address environmental challenges, boost the use of renewable energy and eliminate more than 130 million tonnes of carbon emissions.
The Middle East Green Initiative also aims to reduce carbon emissions by 60% in the region.
There are also plans to plant 10 billion trees in the Kingdom and restore 40 million hectares of degraded land, while across the region there are plans for 50 billion trees and the restoration of 200 million hectares of degraded land.
Much will depend on enlightenment and imagination at the societal and individual level. Do we continue to view our world as a supposedly endless source of materials for our consumption and as a dumping ground for the resulting waste, or are we aiming for a cleaner and more sustainable circular economy?
Young people, in particular, are increasingly concerned about the future of their planet and are highly motivated to protect it. This awakening is already beginning to translate into government policy, in Saudi Arabia and around the world.