The circular economy of waste can improve MidEast's construction operations
Contractors and developers must explore and invest in new systems to integrate green waste management systems into future construction projects, Oscar Rousseau reports
Economists refer to the system by which one industry’s by-products become another industry’s feedstock as the ‘circular economy’, and when it comes to waste management, the business and environmental benefits of this system are clear.
Improved effectiveness in the use of materials can lead to lower costs and less waste.
Waste that one company simply cannot reuse could be a vital commodity for another firm. For example, treated liquid waste can be used for organic farming or irrigation; carbon dust, a by-product of aluminium smelting, can be used as an alternative fuel in the cement industry.
Moving towards a circular economy can support profitability, and three companies from Europe, North America, and the Middle East, which operate in the GCC, are calling for greater collaboration in this area.
Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA), which claims to be the largest industrial company in the UAE outside of the oil and gas sector, says it is a supporter of circular economy initiatives for waste management.
“At EGA, our long-term aspiration is that everything we produce can ultimately be a product with an economic use,” said EGA’s Salman Abdulla earlier in 2018.
“We just have to work with other industries to find those uses. [...] This is clearly the right thing to do, for business and the planet.”
Abdulla, EGA’s executive vice president of health, safety, security, and environment; quality; and business transformation, was speaking following the company’s announcement earlier this year that the volume of waste it had recycled in 2017 had increased by nearly a quarter compared to the year before. EGA recycled 96,000 tonnes of waste last year, up from 77,000t in 2016.
The firm’s smelting operations in Abu Dhabi and Dubai produce several by-products, including spent pot lining and carbon dust, which have been used in another construction-related field – the cement sector.
EGA delivered more than twice as much spent pot lining – the used inner lining of massive aluminium smelting pots – to UAE cement plants last year than it did in 2016. The firm also supplied more than twice the amount of carbon dust to the cement industry in 2017 than it did in 2016.
The company plans to continue to explore how its by-products can be used by other companies. It is also building the UAE’s first alumina refinery in Al Taweelah, Abu Dhabi. Built at a cost of $3.3bn (AED12.1bn), the plant will produce alumina for EGA’s smelting operations when it opens in 2019.
One of the by-products of alumina refining is bauxite residue. While experts believe that 150 million tonnes of bauxite residue is produced worldwide, they claim that less than 2% is put to productive use. Another way in which EGA’s waste-management system is moving towards a circular economy model is evidenced by the fact that the company is working on research with the University of Queensland, Australia, to see if bauxite residue can be put to use in agriculture.
Waste to value
Associate of sustainable resource management at Toronto Stock Exchange-listed WSP, Monica Feghali, says that her company has seen an emphasis on the introduction of what she calls “waste-to-value approaches”, a circular waste-management economy in everything but name.
Feghali explains there is scope to recycle more of the construction materials that are used in both development and demolition. Potential exists for recycling and even re-using materials, as some of the components present a “high-resource value”, she says. However, it is important to identify and remove any potential hazardous waste, such as asbestos, solvents, paint waste, chemical waste, or gas cylinders.
Feghali says there are five areas that construction companies could explore in order to improve waste-management practices: find local supplies for recovered materials such as recycled aggregate; launch a packaging take-back scheme; explore modular construction and off-site fabrication of building components to minimise waste; create a labelled waste-segregation area to facilitate the separation of materials for potential reuse, recycling, and recovery; and invest in staff training.
Fady Juez, managing director of wastewater management outfit Metito, which has offices in Europe, the US, and the Middle East, calls for “greater participation” in public-private partnerships (PPP) for waste management. He says the company, which plans to build its PPP capabilities and portfolio this year, wants to see more cross-sector collaboration to accelerate initiatives for recycling or reusing construction site waste.
“We expect more private-sector participation in major infrastructural and development projects, and more eco-friendly energy sources and technology lowering the cost of operations in a variety of projects,” he adds.
On the project front, Metito is working in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other GGC countries, on several waste-management projects. One recent contract was for the design and construction of a $58.7m (SAR220m) seawater desalination plant powered by solar energy in the King Abdullah Economic City megaproject in Saudi Arabia. This project is expected to produce 30,000 cubic metres of drinking water per day and will start production in Q1 2020.
Another of Metito’s projects, this time in the UAE, was the development of a wastewater recycling and treated sewage effluent plant, which the firm carried out for Emaar Properties several years ago. The plant leverages treated sewage water for district cooling at Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Fountain.
Metito expects to see “a lot of activity” in Saudi Arabia and predicts that the volume of work will continue to grow as a result of the kingdom’s Vison 2030 strategy, according to Juez. “In the UAE, there is more focus now on renewable energy, water relaying and reuse, which is a great trend that we hope to see growing,” he adds.
While he is optimistic about the future, Juez admits “challenges are present”. He emphasises the importance of reusing materials, but says reluctance to adopt new technologies, uncertainty over oil prices, delayed payments resulting in cash flow issues, and rising borrowing costs are all challenges that could curtail progress towards a more collaborative waste-management system.
As the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, and in the Middle East’s construction industry there is certainly scope to pursue more efficient systems and to forge PPPs in order to capture the financial, operational, and environmental benefits that a circular economy can deliver. Trash from one company may never exactly be another’s treasure, but it could help to achieve the goal that many businesses are currently pursuing: the sustainability of both the plant and of profits.