There’s no polite way to say this: residents of the UAE are a bunch of wasters. The country is sitting on an ever-growing mound of trash.
The UAE imports a whopping 80 to 90 percent of its food – and then throws away as much as a third of it, unused. The country ranks highly in plastic usage, using most of it just once.
The environment is in peril and so are we if we don’t change our habits. It doesn’t have to be drastic; even small changes can make a difference and, as a nice bonus, can save you money too.
That’s why at the first Livehealthy Festival in January, we convened a panel of environmentalists to get their top tips on how to wind down the waste.
Sheikh Dr Majid Sultan Al Qassimi was the first Emirati to qualify as a veterinarian. He is now an adviser to the Minister of Climate Change and Environment and a member of the council of the World Organisation for Animal Health.
Ryan Ingram is the founder of the environmental consultancy, Terraloop.
Barry Rosenthal is an award-winning photographer and artist based in New York who collects plastic waste from beaches and shorelines and turns it into art.
Here’s what they recommend:
Sort your food waste
Start really paying close attention to how much food you throw away, says Ingram. “If you’re not aware, you can’t change. If you throw away a banana, you’re not only throwing away its nutrients but also all the energy and dozens of liters of water that went into producing it.”
The key is to “measure to manage,” he adds. Before shopping for groceries, plan what you’re going to eat so you know how much you need and to stop you over-buying. Markets are great for buying fresh produce in just the right quantities rather than pre-packaged supermarket fare, which sometimes means you end up with more than you need, leading to waste – not to mention the unnecessary packaging.
Start a compost heap
Throw your fruit and vegetable peels and unused bits into a composting bin and get free top-notch fertilizer to use on your garden.
Sheikh Majid has been a huge fan of composting for years. “I was overwhelmed by what we were coming out of the house with. There was so much, we needed multiple compost heaps. It got me thinking about how we are even generating so much waste.”
You don’t need a big garden to do this. A small bin on your balcony will provide enough fertilizer for your potted plants.
Composting can also create communities. “I take my peels, dry them out in a small machine I keep in my shed and teach my friends how to use them and how to garden, so you’re sharing the experience,” says Sheikh Majid. “It’s also about reconnecting with food, seeing where it comes from. It’s amazing to look after a plant and watch it grow and become lemongrass or mint or lettuce.”
Re-use before recycling
Taking your plastic and glass to the recycling bin is a good start but why not try to re-use those containers? Take glass jars and bottles to the shop to be refilled. Take your own Tupperware or other solid plastic containers to the supermarket. Pile loose fruit and veg into cloth bags instead of those plastic bags they give out at the weighing stations.
The alarming fact about plastic is that only nine percent of it has ever been recycled since the 1950s.
“With plastic, people think ‘oh, it’s OK, we’re recycling.’ That’s what I call a through-put,” says Sheikh Majid. “If you can reduce your input into plastic consumption, that’s even better because you’ll be starting at the source.”
“There’s a thing called the circle economy, where the waste goes back into production,” says Barry Rosenthal. “Big manufacturers should be doing this globally by factoring in how to reuse and repurpose any waste they produce.”
Connect to nature
It sounds obvious, but keep in mind why you’re doing this, says Ingram.
“You have to be conscious to create a zero-waste lifestyle. When you’re moved by a piece of art or by an animal or by anything beautiful, you begin to respect nature. If you connect with where our food comes from and what gives us fresh air, it becomes an easier task.”
Do I really need this?
Retail therapy, the latest “must-have,” treating ourselves with a shopping spree – there’s no denying that our culture is based on consumption and consumerism. It is all too easy to give into the temptation to buy something new instead of repairing or refurbishing what you already have.
Rosenthal suggests swapping things for experiences. “Instead of eyeing up the latest shiny new thing, treat yourself to a trip to the beach or a special meal.”
Keep a shopping bag handy
You’ve got a reusable bag at home, or even several of them, but you find you never have one on you when you go shopping? Stash a couple in the side door of your car so that you’ve always got one to hand when you need it, suggests Sheikh Majid.
Check out new recycling programs
Recycling bins are popping up everywhere, which is encouraging. But Washmen, the clothes washing company, do one better. Not only do they collect and do your laundry, they also pick up your recycling from outside your door and dispose of it properly, which is super-convenient if you live in an apartment or high-rise block. Best of all, the recycling pick-up service is free.
- Sheikh Dr Majid Sultan Al Qassimi, Ryan Ingram and Barry Rosenthal were the expert speakers in a panel discussion on waste reduction at the first Livehealthy.ae Festival, which took place on January 24-25, 2020 at Manarat al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi.
Danae Mercer is a freelance health and travel journalist. In addition to working as editor-in-chief of Women's Health Middle East and Men's Health Middle East, Danae has written for The Sunday Times, CNN Travel, Dubai Tourism, The Guardian, Afar, Bloomberg and many more. She's based in Dubai and is a trainer at Crank. instagram.com/danaemercer