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The recycling war moves to the Middle East Add to ...

Kamal has proved to be a quick study in the art of waste management. In many ways, however, it’s an unlikely career for the University of Toronto graduate, who studied pharmacology and toxicology. His CV lists lower-profile work stints—negotiating contracts at Bell Canada and marketing Internet software for a Toronto dotcom. “Like a lot of people who graduated in the ’90s, it took me a while to find my calling,” he admits.

Born in Longueil, on the south shore of Montreal, Kamal’s parents are of Palestinian descent. His father immigrated to Canada to study engineering at the University of Waterloo, and Kamal’s upbringing straddled Canada and the Middle East. When he was six, he moved to Sharjah, where his father worked as an engineer for Arabtec, a large Emirati construction company. Kamal’s mother was the founding general manager of the Sharjah Ladies’ Club, an exclusive arts and cultural centre. Because of their prominent positions in Sharjah, the Kamals became friendly with the Al Qasimi ruling family.

The Sharjah of Kamal’s childhood in the ’70s was still a place where alcohol was served, and a vibrant social scene that dwarfed that of Dubai. It is still considered the cultural capital of the UAE, with an international book fair, 17 museums and a number of soaring, beautiful mosques. But in the late ’70s, Sharjah began imposing some of the strictest laws in the UAE, including a ban on the sale, possession and consumption of alcohol. Men and women are required by law to dress conservatively; mixing between unmarried men and woman is strictly illegal.

In other ways — particularly when it comes to the business of waste management and the environment — Kamal argues that Sharjah is downright progressive.

Samer Kamal is standing in Bee’ah’s nerve centre, a cavernous warehouse surrounded by mountains of household and industrial waste, the inconvenient byproduct of a staggering building boom that has accelerated in lockstep with the swelling population. Bee’ah’s 220,000-square-foot, four-storey Material Recovery Facility (MRF) went online earlier this year, transforming raw material collected from 1,500 recycling bins stationed throughout Sharjah into precious bales of post-consumer material. Previously, all of the waste materials, including recyclables, were simply buried.

Recyclables at the Bee'ah landfill in Sharjah are turned into giant bales inside the Material Recovery Facility.

While Kamal was assembling his management team, 50 recycling bins were installed across the city as part of a co-operative pilot project that Kamal was adamant would be more successful than enforcing compliance in the early stages. “The approach we believe in is to start by giving organizations and individuals the opportunity to act voluntarily ... you’ll gain a certain percentage of that community’s support right away, and then introduce regulations that will require they act responsibly whether they choose to do so or not.”

The strategy proved effective — there are now 1,800 recycling bins dotted around Sharjah’s streets. Most are full on a daily basis, and the usage rate is approximately 85 per cent, the same as in Canada. “There are a few things that have been fantastic in the last little while. ... Both the business community and the residential community have begun to understand that there’s a challenge we need to face and we need to face it as assertively as we can,” Kamal says.

In May, 2009, Bee’ah took control of the Al Saj’ah landfill, which processes up to 39,000 tonnes of waste a day through its recycling facility, including trash from Sharjah’s previous landfill, located near the university.

Reinhart Wilkes, who is operations manager at Al Saj’ah, recently visited the largest landfill in the United States, in Puenta Hills, just east of Los Angeles. “I asked them what kind of tonnage they got on a daily basis. At peak times, they said about 13,000 tonnes. I said, ‘I have that by lunchtime.’ ”

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