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

Operating at full capacity, the MRF can process 3,200 tonnes a day, through a combination of manual and mechanical sorting. What’s left over goes into the landfill. Hundreds of workers, mainly from India and Pakistan, spend their days separating recyclables from garbage as it travels along whirring conveyor belts. The smell is overwhelming, but most of the workers, dressed in coveralls, have grown so accustomed to the stench that they don’t bother wearing the white gas masks that are provided. They are paid relatively good wages for the region, about $1,000 a month, and the company provides them with decent accommodation and a trip home every year. “When we went overseas to recruit, we were overwhelmed. People are lining up for these jobs,” Kamal says.

Bee’ah sells its post-consumer recyclables, which are machine-packaged into bales, to local buyers, including its owner, and plans to seek buyers further afield as its recycling facility ramps up. In May, the city of Sharjah agreed to purchase rubber crumb produced at Bee’ah’s tire recycling facility, where a cryogenic process is used to transform a mountain of eight million tires into powder. It can be used to construct roads or create bouncy surfaces for children’s playgrounds.

For Kamal, the business transaction is a simple one: “You give us recyclable material, and we recycle it in a responsible fashion.”

Bee’ah boasts $1.47 billion in assets and 600 employees, mostly waste sorters, as well as an international management team from Europe, North America and the Middle East. The company, still running at half capacity, has yet to turn a profit, a fact that leaves Kamal unfazed. “What we’ve seen with His Highness’s decision to launch Bee’ah is really the opposite of ... concerning himself with the economics or logistics. What we’re doing here is more complex than that.”

Workers sort through garbage, removing paper, plastics and metals.

Still, Kamal is confident that Bee’ah will be profitable in two years. The challenges, he says, are no different than those faced by Western countries 20 years ago. Revenue currently comes from a combination of sources: fees received from the city of Sharjah to collect the emirate’s waste, sweep its streets and manage the landfill, as well as from the sale of post-consumer waste. Bee’ah’s biggest cost lies in sorting the waste once it’s arrived at the landfill. Still, there’s the small matter of convincing residents that they should recycle.

Bee’ah fields two to three calls each day from schools, offices and households that are interested in getting a blue bin, and waste experts in the region still warn of a looming crisis if the UAE and the wider Middle East don’t come to terms with the rising tide of waste. “What we are lacking is the political will, financing and technology,” said Fareed Bushehri, an officer at the United Nations Environment Programme’s regional office for West Africa, when he spoke at the Middle East Waste Summit in Dubai in May.

Frederic Vigier, chief executive at Dubai waste-management company Trashco, argues that recycling programs are difficult to manage. While the UAE government has declared its desire to create and expand recycling, “the thing is to see how to convert intention into action.”

Without tough legislation, he says, there is no way to force people to stop dumping. “We know very well that the recycling process costs money.”

Jeremy Byatt, Bee’ah’s director of environmental responsibility disagrees, saying that if you provide people with the option of recycling, they will. “We have all these chicken-and-egg problems. You cannot ask people to recycle unless you have a place to process it.”

With that in mind, Kamal has his sights set on expansion. There are no plans for an IPO, but he hasn’t ruled out anything. “There is no reason we couldn’t take what we are doing here and move to other places.”

This article first appeared in the September, 2010 issue of Your Business magazine.

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