The Covid emergency, as with many industries, has also challenged the waste management and recycling industry in the Middle East and Africa, with the market slowing down as general uncertainty kicked in.

To top that, in the region, most of the protective personal equipment (PPEs) and the increased single-use waste will end up in open dumps, that being the most common practice of disposal – which is around 60% to 70% of the total waste generated. But let’s see some of the first changes that the pandemic has brought to the market and dig into what’s happening now, as well as into solutions and possible future developments.

Waste management and recycling industry in the Region: the early signs of the pandemic

Let us start by saying that the recyclers of plastic, paper, and metals in the Region had been already challenged by the China import ban. Starting in 2018, most of the plastic materials were diverted to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey, while paper and metals to India – which is the second importer of metal scraps worldwide.

But the fast spread of the virus in India caused the congestion of thousands of containers lying in Indian ports, which put at risk 6,000 recycling units and affected metal recycling business in the Middle East. In fact, to limit the damages the Material Recycling Association of India (MRAI) urged the central government to waive off the detention and demurrage charges, which might bring the value of goods close to zero.

As well, in the Middle East, metal recycling activities have been less intense following the oil price which impacted the investment in infrastructure and real state – the main sources of metal scraps.

Other recycling activities – such as paper and cardboard, plastics, and textiles suffered as well, because of a lack of demand. Specifically, plastic recycling was threatened by the oil crisis.

The recycling market after the easing of the lockdown measures

According to the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), most recycling facilities are back to relative normality after the easing of lockdown measures. However, scrap inflows are 30% lower than the norm, as running businesses with a full workforce, reduced volumes, and low prices, cannot work on profit.

Moreover, in UAE the waste export has been banned for 4 months, as they want to promote the internal recycling market.

Luckily, there are signs for a quick return to business as usual in metal recycling. For ferrous scrap, demand from Turkey is supporting sales, while non-ferrous metals, especially copper, are sought after in the context of rising prices.

The good news from the region

The Coronavirus pandemic has not brought challenges only, but also some positive outcomes as it seems to have boosted the efforts of the public and private sector to fight tremendous waste accumulation in the region.

Despite the turndown of the international trade and movements, the commissioning of large waste-to-energy projects has been carried on. Last June, the boiler installation of 300,000 TPA waste-to-energy plant was announced, generating 30 MW, in Sharjah municipality in UAE.

In July, the submission of bids for the installation of the other two waste-to-energy (WtE) plants in Abu Dhabi with a total capacity of 600 MW was concluded.

Finally, the operation of the largest Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) in the Region, processing 1500 tons of MSW per day in Umm Al Quwain, is planned to be in operation in Q4 2020.

Egypt seems to follow the direction of waste to energy as well, with the launching of the first international “Expression of Interest” for developing projects under a feed-in tariff (FIT) mechanism, approved for the first time in the country by a ministerial decree in March 2019.

Waste to energy and further steps for the recycling industry

Needless to say, that during the high pick of the pandemic, some of the countries have chosen to go back to incineration processes, fearing a secondary transmission of the virus if carrying on the activities of manual selection. And many of the projects that are now developing in the region are mainly going towards incineration.

Waste to Energy has also proven to be a valid solution to cope with really high rates of waste generation, and it helps to reduce the risk of a secondary outburst of COVID-19, especially if MSW (municipal solid waste) mixed with medical waste is deposited in open dumps, as it frequently happens in developing countries.

So, what would be the right solution to prevent the spread of the virus and at the same time to promote a sustainable future?

Well, the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) suggests that recycling activities can be carried on if they are completely mechanized, and they do not involve manual sorting. And this is possible when working with high-performant technology that is now available on the market. For example, Ecostar’s patented self-cleaning technology reduces at minimum worker exposition to waste. At the same time, the DDS (Dynamic Disc Screening) technology has a positive impact on business profits, as it reduces maintenance costs, brings an energy consumption reduction cost of up to -70% versus traditional technologies, and has higher production volumes and high-quality material.

We can all agree that on top of the challenges the region has been facing for such a long time, the pandemic has taken a toll on the recycling industry. But with the rise of new projects, government policies, high performant technologies, the market can take a positive turn.