Egyptian Brothers Innovate Recycling Technology in the Emirates

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Many residents in the UAE simply don’t understand recycling, several recycling companies have said over the past few years. In Abu Dhabi, where the government’s Center for Waste Management launched a door-to-door recycling service in 2011, the issue can be as simple as residents simply not understanding the difference between green and black bins.

This disconnect isn’t for lack of the UAE’s emphasis on recycling; the country plans to ban non-biodegradable plastic products beginning next year, install a green gas station in Dubai, and curtail the over 30 million tonnes of waste its residents produce every year. In Abu Dhabi alone, residents generate over 30,000 tonnes of waste a day, one study found in 2012.

If one Dubai-based startup gets its wish, recycling will now be as easy as pushing a button. WMS Metal Industries has built a product that can be retrofitted onto existing garbage chutes, allowing users to deposit recycling and have it separated automatically by pushing a knob to indicate its type: plastic, paper and cardboard, or metal. Once at the bottom of the chute, recyclables are funneled into separate containers and kept secure, to prevent theft.

“A typical 20-story building with 6 tenants per floor can make about 7,000 AED a month,” says WMSMI founder Mohamed Nassar. That computes to about 59 AED, or US $16, a month, per tenant.

Larger construction companies like Emaar could make “hundreds of thousands of dirhams, if not millions a year, if they take a share of the profits from the recycling,” says Nassar.

The company has already installed 9 devices at the Abu Dhabi Central Market and several more at New York University in Abu Dhabi, and is now looking into implementing a broader recycling program in Sharjah, and Dubai, where the expansion of the city’s “My City, My Environment” door-to-door recycling service was
recently put on hold.

While local governments may be supporting recycling on the whole, there’s not enough enforcement to make it a widespread phenomenon, says Nassar. “Incentive can be either a stick or a carrot. Either laws force you to recycle, or you create a benefit. Most projects undertaken here, because of the lack of legislation, are driven by the carrot; this waste can be sold off as raw material.” (Another carrot might be adding emotional feedback; one group of students at UAE University found that adding a smiley face to recycling bins also increases use). 

Yet when it comes to pioneering a recycling program in the Middle East in general, he says, the UAE is the place to be. “Engagement with sustainable construction in the UAE is far ahead of any other nation in the Arab region. We're fairly confident that partnering with one of the three larger emirates will finally allow us to really take off.”

Innovation in a Time of Crisis

Nassar and his brother, Mostafa, are both originally from Egypt, but have grown up entirely in the Emirates. In 2007, when construction in the UAE was booming, Mohamed launched WMSMI to focus on an underserved niche: manufacturing and installing garbage chutes (without recycling capability). By serving both residential and corporate projects, he was able to ride the wave of expansion transforming Dubai.

When the financial crisis hit, however, he realised the company would have to diversify its products to survive. “Looking beyond the Dubai horizon served us well,” he admits. Beginning to build stainless steel segments for construction allowed the company to continue growing. In September 2011, when Dubai SME opened, he decided that it was time to focus on new growth. “I set our sights beyond mere survival, and asked my brother Mostafa to return from Canada. He joined us with the mandate of setting up this green initiative.”

Since then, the company has ranked 28th in the Dubai SME 100, and its growth earned it 30th place in the 2012 Arabia500 rankings for the UAE. Rankings don’t mean that the ecosystem is where it should be, however. “It's been disheartening to see technology imported from abroad, with no innovation occurring in the UAE,” says Nassar. “Last year, there were 320 patents filed in the UAE, while 6,000 were filed in India.

He and his brother hope to spur innovation, and, eventually, to return to Egypt, where they’ve never lived. “The grand master plan is to go back to Egypt some day, and the sooner the better,” says Nassar, hinting that the company is working on a contract there.

Yet in Egypt, where trash separation is undertaken by a class of people known as “zabbaleen,” a recycling chute will likely not find traction. “The separator system is not going to take us back to Egypt,” Nassar admits. A return to Egypt will likely mean a return to old-fashioned chute construction. “For it to make sense, first, buildings need to have chutes in them.”  

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