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Abu Dhabi set to spruce up its not-so-green image Add to ...

An avid recycler back in Washington, Rose Dakin was stumped over what to do with all the bottles, cans and newspapers that accumulated in her apartment after she moved last year to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, the small, oil-rich nation in the Middle East that's experienced growth and modernization at an astonishing pace.

So, like many other expatriates, the 33-year-old new mother just threw recyclables away.

"When I got here, I didn't know where to take it," she said. "I was lazy, and the baby was small."

People who live in Abu Dhabi are among the highest garbage producers in the world: 2007 government statistics showed they threw out almost 2.5 kilograms of trash daily, double the amount generated by those living in developed countries. All the consumables of a modern metropolis had become easily attainable in the fast-growing city, but public waste facilities hadn't kept pace.

That's set to change, as the municipality recently launched the first phase of a recycling program that has seen black garbage and green recycling boxes distributed to 3,000 villas in three residential areas. Over the next year, the collection program will be introduced to the entire city. It has not yet been determined whether the collected materials will be processed locally or shipped abroad.

"You are really changing the mindset," said Habiba al Marashi, co-founder and chair of the Emirates Environmental Group, which filled the gap in municipal collection by co-ordinating several recycling collection depots, and works with thousands of members to promote recycling in homes, schools and private companies. EEG has been working for the past 18 years to raise awareness about the environment in a part of the world that is still catching on.

"A lot of the time people will tell you 'We would have loved to, we'd like to be, it's a very inconvenient drive for us.' "

After her initial inertia passed, Ms. Dakin found one of EEG's private recycling depots outside Spinneys, a grocery store popular with expatriates. Until the municipal program reaches her neighbourhood, she and her husband will continue to load up the car with plastic, glass and newsprint when they head out grocery shopping.

"It feels better," she said. "It feels more normal. And I get more judgmental toward people who don't."

Although there remains a lack of awareness and commitment to the issue among Emiratis, the vast expatriate population isn't much better.

"This is a transient society," Ms. al Marashi says. "People think 'I'm not here for long, I won't have an impact and I'll do it when I go back home.' "

Michael Atkinson, a chartered surveyor for an architecture firm, is one of those who recycled back in the UK but has not since arriving in Abu Dhabi two years ago.

"We don't know where to go," he said. "It's like fire and forget it. Down the chute."

Fiona Morrison, a Scot who moved to the capital via London a year ago, said she feels "absolutely terrible" about having fallen out of the habit of recycling. At her last stop, the 37-year-old human resources director used to carry reusable bags to do her grocery shopping.

"Now it's so bad," she said, "I don't even do that."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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