“Waste management poses unique problems and requires tailor-made solutions”

S. Madhumohan, Chief Innovation Officer, Dulsco, talks to Swaliha Shanavas about the developments in the waste management sector, waste recycling opportunities, the challenges facing the industry and his role in this important segment.

MadhumohanMadhumohan S. has a rich and varied experience of about 35 years in the environment and resource recovery sector. He holds a chemical engineering degree from National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirapalli, India and a postgraduate degree in industrial management from Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, India.

Tell us a bit about your experience in the waste management industry so far. What triggered your interest in this sector?

It’s been a long journey through various interesting phases, mostly focused on the environment and resource recovery field. New ideas and concepts triggered my interest right from the start and I took an offbeat path after my post-graduation, giving up a lucrative offer from Tata administrative services to follow my interest in the introduction of new technologies in the sugar industry in India.

This was followed by a stint of selling and working on design and execution of various drying systems for many unique applications working for a reputed engineering group in India, involving pilot plant trials and subsequent design of systems. It was during this period that I was introduced to a German company that was looking at introducing paper recycling technologies in India. I took up the challenge to set up their operations, and thus began my journey into waste and resource management, and a dedicated career in waste recycling and recovery opportunities.

The Indian recovered paper industry was in its nascent stage and I was involved in setting up major recycling projects from concept stage as the EPC and technology provider working with global leaders like Lamort, Cellier, Solaronics, etc. I moved to Abu Dhabi in 1997 and worked with a particular group, where we cleaned up almost 40000 tons of sludge for ADNOC and recovered the oil, brought in Bioremediation technology from TERI/IOC, also winning an environmental award from ADNOC in 2006. This was followed by many firsts in the environmental field in Abu Dhabi: Non-man entry tank cleaning operations, setting up the first used engine oil recycling facility for the environment agency, handling of hazardous wastes for ADWEA group and other similar projects. From 2014, I have been with Dulsco heading their environmental operations and the company has opened up an enormous opportunity to address specific waste management issues.

As the chief innovation officer at Dulsco, what does your role involve?

Over the years one of the major lessons learnt was that if one wants to succeed in waste management they need to have total control over the waste, which is the raw material for any solution or technology. This is where Dulsco’s unique strength attracted me. Being one of the major waste management companies in the region transporting over 2500 tons per day of MSW in Dubai alone and active in various oil, hazardous and other waste handling operations, we are in a unique position to bring in the best technologies to the region.

Technologies to treat, recover or handle efficiently any specific type of waste handled by us currently are out there in the global market. My role is to explore, evaluate and decide on the appropriate technology for various waste streams as suited for the local market. A cut and paste approach, which is generally followed in this region, is bound to fail and we have to tailor the solution to the region’s requirements. This is what I am focusing on.

Please provide an overview of the waste management sector in the Middle East region.

The Middle East is one of the largest per capita generators of waste in the world and currently generates over 106 million tons of waste annually, which is expected to reach around 120 million tons per annum by 2020. Of this, Construction and Demolition (C&D) waste alone contributes to over 53 percent with the municipal solid waste (MSW) coming next with around 33 percent, and other industrial, hazardous and medical waste at 14 percent.

In the GCC, Saudi Arabia and UAE alone account for more than 80 percent of the MSW generated, with KSA topping at around 15 million tons per year followed by UAE at around 11 million tons per year. In the past few years there have been a lot of talks and government level focus on MSW with emphasis on waste reduction, recycling, reuse, etc. These along with the C&D sector and medical/hazardous waste are the major areas of focus in the region.

All governments in the region have realised that waste reduction is a top priority on their agenda including water conservation to sustain the fragile ecology of the region and have established special authorities and programmes to tackle this crucial issue.

What is your view on the development of the sector in the UAE? What is the focus of municipalities to address the recycling issues and meet the target of 75% waste diversion by 2021?

UAE is relatively a more mature market for waste management in the GCC region. This is attributable to the following reasons: A clear vision and focus from the government both at the federal level and local municipality level in each emirate; All laws and control systems for waste collection/transport/disposal are in place both at federal and regional level for implementation, which leaves less room for any ambiguity; The tipping fees which is one of the major driving factors to ensure waste diversion is finalised in Dubai and is to be implemented shortly. Similar tipping fees for selected types of wastes are also in place in all other emirates; Public awareness and commitment of corporates, stakeholders to tackle the waste issues have also grown tremendously over the years in the UAE. With the above in place, I am quite confident that the municipalities would be able to drive the waste diversion objectives successfully.

In this context, what opportunities does the recycling segment present in the UAE, and what is Dulsco’s approach and strategy in this regard?

As stated above, the government objective and deterrent tipping fee structures being implemented should drive the reduction/recycling initiatives in the UAE. We have done an analysis of MSW collected in the emirates, and this normally contains around 55% organic/food waste and the remaining 45% is recyclables. A further break down of these recyclables revealed that paper would constitute 45-50%, glass around 25-30%, plastic around 10-15% and metals/cans around 5%. This throws up an opportunity to address organic waste by insitu composters, source segregation initiatives to recover the recyclables, setting up sorting stations, etc., to divert these from landfills and recover value from the same.

At Dulsco, we have been working closely with Dubai Municipality and other authorities on recycling initiatives like the ‘My city My environment’ programme in Dubai for source segregation since 2014, and we are happy that within the past 4 years in the areas where we are active, we have achieved a recycling recovery target of 20% from 0% when we started the programme. This has been achieved due to clear focused efforts with all stake holders, having a 360 degree approach of door to door campaigns, mall campaigns, school campaigns, social media and PR, word of mouth target groups, resident rewards, newspaper inserts, etc. We would continue with these programmes, while we focus on specific insitu solutions like food composting and expansion of our sorting line, where we will handle the pre-sorted comingled recyclables.

We are also addressing larger solutions like waste to energy, gasification, etc. as part of our overall focus on the sector. Since C&D is a major contributor to the waste quantity, we have focused on C&D waste and have already commissioned two units in the emirate of Ajman and Umm Al Quwain, which will be followed by one in Fujairah with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. These units will ensure that the total C&D generated in these emirates are completely processed and recycled and diverted 100% away from the landfills.

We are currently implementing a slop and sludge processing facility at Jebel Ali, which will ensure that the oily wastes from ships and sludge are completely processed here and recovered. This would be one of the only such state-of-the-art facilities that cater to the MARPOL regulations in the region. We also have operations for handling hazardous wastes for shipping the same to processing facilities in Europe as per Basel convention norms, while we are working on setting up suitable facilities for the same.

What are the key challenges in effectively implementing waste recycling projects in the UAE?

The key challenges in the MSW segment are the demographic diversity of UAE. With the population composed of over 150 nationalities, it is a tough challenge to have all stakeholders on the same page to support source segregation. Besides this the residents constantly change, which means that even in areas we have established proper systems, continuous education and monitoring is a must as the stakeholders would have changed. Inter emirate movement of specific hazardous wastes is a challenge as it is a constraint to establish viable treatment capacities. Tipping fees which are under implementation, once done would drive the change in behaviour.

The waste disposal fee that was to take effect mid-May in Dubai has now been postponed. As a service provider, what are your comments; how do you see this impacting the sector once it becomes a reality?

We believe that it is only postponed and not cancelled; so we are confident that the objectives for which these have been established would be met. As a service provider we are geared up to commence the tipping fee operations once it starts.

This will definitely open up opportunities for many viable sorting lines, composting units, and many other recycling projects and waste treatment plants to come up in Dubai and in the UAE. The sector will definitely boom and only serious players with committed responsibility to the environment in the region would be able to take these forward.

What do you love most about your job, and what is the most challenging aspect?

I wake up every day to a new opportunity and challenge as this sector has a lot of opportunities and issues to address, which keeps my adrenaline flowing; and this is what I love most as it’s not a drab or routine job that I am doing.

The challenges are about picking and deciding on the right technological solutions. The global market is flooded with many solution providers and since these involve high capital investments, you cannot make a mistake in your judgement and selection of the technology. What works in Europe need not necessarily work here as the regulations, costs, tipping fees and challenges are different.

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