Opinion: Enabling a circular economy in the Arabian Gulf

Enhancing the sustainability of plastic products and applications, throughout their life-cycle and further integrating the GCC plastic value chain to create and economically sustain a market for recycled materials would be another key step forward in fulfilling the circular economy vision, comments Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun.

Global plastics industry and circular economy.
Global plastics industry and circular economy.

If you follow the latest trends creating opportunities and challenges for the chemical industry, many of you would have heard about the ‘circular economy’ – an innovative new concept that has emerged as an alternative to a linear economic model.

Unlike the existing take-make-use-dispose approach, the circular economy is designed to maximise the value and utility of materials over their lifecycle and keep them inside the value chain for as long as possible, thus minimising energy and resource consumption.

In essence, what the circular economy does is create a closed loop for materials and products as they go through the production and consumption cycle, which prevents the creation of waste and retains their value.

Aligning with the GCC national visions

While the circular economy concept is still at a nascent stage, including in many developed economies from which it originated, significant opportunities exist to adopt a more circular approach in the Arabian Gulf region. A move to a more circular approach can retain and increase value creation within the economy. It can also reduce our dependence on scarce natural resources and achieve alignment with the GCC national visions of sustainable long-term investments (economic).

It can further play a key role in job creation, while improving the standard and quality of life (social), decrease waste generation, cut greenhouse gas emissions and prevent waste leakage into marine and desert environments (environmental).

If we take plastics for example, GCC’s per capita consumption has grown rapidly at 4% per annum in the last decade, reaching 94kg per person in 2016.

Yet, the recycling rate in the GCC, including that of plastics is as low as 10% vs. 34% in the US and 45% in the UK. Thanks to its flexibility, as a material, plastic can play a key role in enabling the circular economy.

With current technology, as much as 50% of post-use plastics can be reused and recovered for their energy through chemical recycling, with additional 40% being brought back into the cycle through mechanical recycling.

Recycling and waste management

Waste generation is another important factor as far as the circular economy is concerned. According to data from 2015, the UAE had the highest per capita waste generation of 2.1kg per person a day, followed by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain at 1.7kg per person a day, Kuwait (1.5kg), and Oman (1.2kg). This compares to a global average of 1.2kg per person a day.

The establishment of a robust recycling and waste management industry in the Arabian Gulf is not just an important prerequisite for a shift to a circular economy, but it could also yield significant benefits for the region, including added value to the local economy, job creation, and achieving the sustainability targets listed in the various national visions by regional governments.

Recycling and waste treatment targets also play a key part in the GCC national visions, with the UAE aiming for 75% treatment of municipal solid waste by 2021, and Saudi Arabia and Oman targeting 85% and 80% recycling rate, respectively, by 2030.

Within the chemical industry in the Arabian Gulf region, GPCA member companies have adopted the circular economy concept in their business strategies, driving greater sustainability and resource optimisation. One example is using process streams as by-products and raw materials, the reclamation and recycling of process water and capturing CO2 for industrial uses.

Other areas where companies can obtain competitive advantage through the circular economy are circular procurement, chemical management, circular products and end-product recycling, which can help grow the regional industry and save carbon dioxide emissions.

Sustainable industry growth

To remain ahead of the game, the industry would also need to embrace circularity for its products by focusing on design innovation to eliminate waste and the 3Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle. We would also need to continue to advocate for the responsible consumption and improved societal behaviour towards handling waste.

The key enablers for an economically viable circular economy will require collaboration across different value chains. This would need to be accompanied by efficient waste management infrastructure and processes in addition to favourable regulations and standards for environmental benefits and sustainable industry growth.

Innovation in product design for reusability and end-of-life recyclability would also be needed. As part of the shift to a more circular business model, the industry would need to focus on skills upgrade and real-time data reporting. To make the circular economy a reality, we would need to establish a multi-stakeholder approach to better plastic waste reduction and management through collaboration, innovation, regulations and standards.

To give more insight into this important topic of global and regional significance, the 13th Annual GPCA Forum will address the circular economy during a dedicated seminar on day one – 27 November 2018 – at the Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai. The seminar will introduce the audience to the concepts of the circular economy, the locations in which it is growing in importance, how it interacts with sustainability in corporate planning, and how it affects the Middle Eastern petrochemical players.

Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is the secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA). Set up in March 2006, GPCA is a dedicated non-profit association, serving its members with industry data and information sources.

GPCA’s Leaders of Tomorrow (LOT) programme was launched in November 2016 during the 11th Annual GPCA Forum in Dubai. The initiative, supported by GPCA members, was born out of GPCA’s long-standing commitment to talent development and building local human capital in the region. LOT falls under GPCA’s ‘Advocacy’ pillar by promoting STEM education and bridging the gap between industry and academia. It is also considered as the first official collective step where industry stakeholders collaborate in shaping the skills of the future industry leaders. Through LOT, GPCA aspires to connect future industry professionals with the industry directly and equip them with the right skill-set required by the industry currently. Since inception, the programme has hosted 343 participants from 40 universities across the six GCC states sponsored by 18 companies in total. As part of LOT, students were provided with a unique opportunity to network with senior industry professionals, expand their knowledge on the market, and prepare them for a successful career in the chemical industry. The 9th edition of Leaders of Tomorrow will take place during the 13th GPCA Annual forum.

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