As the United Arab Emirates grapples with growing plastic pollution from its rapidly-rising population, two local companies say they can help tackle the crisis.

Dubai-based Purecog says it has developed a water-soluble, biodegradable plastic that dissolves in water, leaving zero pollution and no dangerous traces. Purecog says it has brought to market a process developed a century ago.

Another local company, DGrade, is the first in the region to manufacture clothing from recycled plastic. DGrade shreds discarded plastic bottles and turns them into yarn to make high-quality polyester fabrics or blends. 

Each year, the UAE’s 9.7 million population discards 3 billion plastic bottles and each person uses 1,182 plastic bags, roughly triple the global average, according to the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi. Less than 6% of that plastic is recycled before the trash reaches landfills, according to Habiba Al Mar’ashi, chairperson of the Emirates Environmental Group in Dubai.

DGrade can take 1,200 tons of the thrown-away plastic each month to create its yarn. 

Still, the companies face obstacles in collecting raw materials in UAE.

“There is no landfill tax here and therefore no incentive for anybody to segregate waste or recyclables,” Kris Barber, DGrade’s founder and CEO, told Karma. “There’s no real infrastructure to recycle, which means there’s no real market for anybody to re-sell it.”

The company is trying to encourage schools and businesses to recycle.

“The main challenge we’ve had is to capture the feedstock and to set up a local campaign to capture that plastic before it goes to landfill,” Barber said. 

Meanwhile, Purecog is perfecting a process it says may cut plastic use worldwide. Purecog manufactures hydroplast, an alternative thin-film plastic, under license from Hong Kong’s Hydroplast, which owns the rights to the technology developed in the 1920s.

Hydroplast dissolves within seconds in water above 63 degrees. 

“Literally in front of your eyes in a couple of seconds it will be gone,” says Theo Measures, marketing director at Pure CE, Purecog’s Singapore-based parent. The material breaks down into carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, he said.

In cooler water, or in the sea, it dissolves within a year. While regular plastic is hydrophobic, meaning it rejects water, and attracts bacteria and toxins, hydroplast is hydrophilic and “naturally anti-toxic and anti-bacterial,” Measures says, making it suitable for hospital and kitchen applications.  

Hydroplast Pilot

Purecog is piloting hydroplast with a UAE hospitality company. An audit of its 13 restaurants revealed they were using 100,000 trash bags each month. Purecog can replace them with stronger, lighter hydroplast bags saving 5% in costs.

Companies like Purecog and DGrade are needed if the UAE wants to achieve its goal of recycling 75% of waste currently sent to landfills by 2021. Progress has been slow. Among several of the kingdom’s individual emirates, Abu Dhabi recycled 34% of waste in 2018, Dubai 32%, and Ras Al Khaimah only 14%.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai have installed more than a dozen units to collect recyclable materials, with limited impact: the total amount of plastic recycled in Dubai in 2018 was 41,000 tons. Ras Al Khaimah is distributing recycling bags to all its residents — the first attempt to sort recyclables at the household level.

There have been some successful moves.

Bee’ah Tadweer, a public-private partnership based in Sharjah emirate, operates the Middle East’s biggest material recovery facility. One of the world’s largest producers of recovered plastics, it processes more than 3 million tons of waste each year, recovering more than 27 million plastic bottles and 37 million plastic bags every month.

The UAE’s 25 Hilton Hotels have eliminated 3.5 million straws and 2 million bottles a year, while two of the UAE’s international airports will ban all single-use plastic starting next year. A coalition of major food and drink producers have joined a UAE government project to replace plastic packaging with sustainable materials. 

But for real change to occur, the government must set clear standards for industry to follow and educate the population to create “a behavioral shift,” says Al Mar’ashi of the Emirates Environmental Group.