What we dispose of and how has become crucial to the environment. From Omanis’ reluctance to recycle trash to industrial fly tipping, Alvin Thomas examines why good riddance to bad rubbish is more important than ever.
Salim al Barwani believes he and his family are victims of ‘environmental racism’ – a term so new to those in Oman that it must be explained to be understood. His story goes like this:
The view from Salim’s house is one that beggars belief: his beautiful two-storey villa atop the Wadi al Khoud overlooks the vast expanse of greenery, which – in the winter months – gleams from sunlight reflected by the crystal-clear waters that flank the wadi.
His house is an architectural marvel – crowning the mountain like a modern castle with a moat – like in a fairy tale. And as its architect and builder, the 40-year-old Omani is proud of his “creation”.
But it doesn’t take much for Salim’s smile to fade and his nose to flinch. For the odour that engulfs the area is nothing short of nauseating.
The smell wasn’t emanating from within the house but rather from the makeshift landfill that had been created by a bunch of workmen in the area.
Apart from wasted wood and bricks, several construction workers have also dumped leftover foods and drinks cans there. Teenagers meeting in the evening tend to leave several bottles of liquor scattered across the area.
Salim, clearly a level-headed businessman, tells Y: “Everyone has their own dreams. It’s in their blood to want and try to achieve what they desire. But there’ll always be something to spoil it all.
“And in my case, it’s these people who are spoiling the scenery around me and causing air pollution. Right now, the scenes aren’t that bad. Try to come here on a weekend. That’s when you’ll have waste from processed meat and other leftovers dumped into this landfill.
So why hasn’t he reported this to the appropriate authorities?
“I brought this up to the municipality early this year and they did come for a clean-up. I believe they slapped a fine on one contractor too but there are several others who are now joining in on the act.
“If it gets too dirty around here then I’ll have to call the municipality truck again and get it cleared at my own expense,” an agitated Salim says.
He has already shelled out RO30 for a truck to clear the trash before.
This, to some extent, forms the basis of what some people call ‘environmental racism’.
This is the act used to describe acts of environmental injustice within a racialised context. It can mean the dumping of waste near people of colour, or other races.
But, the term takes a different turn in Oman. Here, it revolves around the polluters – who are almost always private bodies – taking to areas that are more sparsely populated.
This can put the lives of those who live in these areas (such as Wadi al Khoud) at risk while also depriving them of their basic rights such as clean air and water.
When we contacted the Muscat Municipality, one spokesperson agreed to speak to us on condition of anonymity.
He said: “We get reports of people calling in to report instances of littering or illegally disposing of food and bio-hazard waste.
“Strict actions are taken, and the fines can go up to RO1000 for repeat offenders. But there are so many situations that go unreported. Oman’s a big country – and that poses many challenges.
“The municipality works hard to address the needs of the country and we’ve made sure that no one will feel that he or she is being attacked by smells coming from solid wastes.
“You’ll see that most landfills across the country are situated far from residential homes.”
What’s the damage like?
As the population of the country grows so does the waste output. That can become a challenge in a country with limited land availability, and cause an adverse impact on the environment and health of the residents.
Moreover, the GCC produces roughly 650kg of municipal waste per person per year, which is almost six times that of India.
The latest statistics revealed by The Oman Environmental Services Holding Company – be’ah – a firm that aims to manage waste in a sustainable manner that is socially acceptable, financially cost-effective and environmentally responsible; have revealed that the waste per capita per day in Oman stands at a staggering 1.2kg.
This means every person in the country produces 1.2kg of solid waste every day.
While these numbers are better than, say, our neighbours from the UAE, it must be noted that the Sultanate sees a 5.2 per cent annual increment in the population annually so the average is only going to increase over time.
In retrospect, the UAE pumps out nearly 2.3kg of waste per head daily.
The Sultanate produced two million tonnes of municipal solid waste last year – which is waste-generated from domestic activities such as households, restaurants and hotels and others similar in nature and composition, which when compared with the UAE’s 4.892mn tonnes is again, better.
According to statistics revealed by EcoMena (a research website for environmental awareness in the Middle East), solid waste in Oman is characterised by very high percentage of recyclables, which includes items such as paper and cardboard (15 per cent), plastics (20.9 per cent), metals (1.8 per cent) and glass (4 per cent).
That said, the waste produced doesn’t quite end there. The waste generated by the healthcare sector stood at 4.5million tonnes while industrial waste was pegged at 1.5m tonnes.
All this waste must, unquestionably, be dumped somewhere.
So, where does the waste go?
The answer to that question is harder than it seems. First and foremost, the final destination of solid waste depends on the location you dispose the trash in. For instance, if you were to throw a plastic chocolate wrapper in the trash in Azaiba, it would be taken to a transfer station in Baushar before finally being dumped for processing in the landfill station in Al Amerat.
The process, however, is a bit more complicated than that, as is explained by Majeed*, a dump truck driver.
He says: “It begins with you disposing of the plastic wrapper in the dedicated dumpster. This, along with other solid wastes is then collected by either the Municipality or be’ah dump trucks, and taken to a transfer station for sorting.
“Transfer stations serve as staging areas where waste can be collected and accumulated before being collected by bigger trucks for transport to landfills. It also has facilities for waste segregation, sorting and temporary storage areas for green, white, bulky waste and other types of waste.
“Finally, the waste is taken from the transfer station to the landfill. Think of this as the holy grail for all solid wastes in your locale.”
The landfill is an engineered pit, in which layers of solid waste are placed, compacted and covered for final disposal.
It’s designed to lessen environmental pollution and health risks. The bottom of the pit is lined with hard-packed clay soil or plastic to prevent chemicals and germs from contaminating groundwater and seepage of waste.
The pit is also covered to prevent insects from breeding. These engineered landfills consist of a collection and treatment system, groundwater monitoring, and gas extraction equipment.
Heading towards a sustainable future
Our municipality source says: “As we’ve been made aware, the modernisation strategy of our waste management operations are taken care of by be’ah, and over the last year or so, they’ve been transferring the waste management operations to international operators.
The move is reportedly a part of a waste management plan that aims to modernise and restructure the handling, treatment and disposal of municipal solid waste (MSW) and expand the country’s capacity for recycling and waste-based energy generation.
As Y revealed in 2017, the handover process includes a move by be’ah to permanently close 317 dumpsites, which have been deemed “environmentally and hygienically unsuitable”.
The dumpsites were then replaced by 10-11 engineered landfill sites and 18-25 transfer stations.
According to Mohammed Sulaiman al Harthy, the executive vice-president for strategic development at Be’ah, “over 220 dumpsites have already been closed in the Sultanate, with the remainder set for closure by early 2019”.
Be’ah’s move of turning away from landfills is a rather strategic one. The company aims to divert as much as 60 per cent of waste away from landfills across the Sultanate.
This waste will then be diverted away from landfills and converted into energy, biogas and other sustainable alternatives by 2022.
As of today, however, 100 per cent of all waste resides in these landfills.
Mr al Harthy has stressed how the Sultanate is pursuing a range of approaches to waste processing in the long run.
“Studies are being carried out for a number of programmes, including waste-to-energy and biogas projects.
“In terms of recycling, a two-bin recycling system will be implemented nationwide following the completion of the deployment of operations and the formal handover of MSW services from the public sector to Be’ah, which is expected to be completed in the next few years.
“One of the success stories of the waste management policy has been in the healthcare sector, which now processes approximately 100 per cent of healthcare waste at three facilities in Muscat, Dhofar and North Batinah,” he added.
The impact of plastic in our environment
In an earlier interview with Y, Abdul Rahman al Busaidi, the Business Development Executive at Oman Environmental Services Holding Company be’ah, shed light on an important topic: the dangers of plastic to the environment.
He says: “Currently, plastic waste makes 21 per cent of the total waste in Oman’s landfills, thereby making it the second most produced waste after organic waste (food).
“Our Community Reach Department is working hard on raising awareness among the public to recycle and reduce their consumption of plastic.”
To understand more about the topic, we ask Shijas Abdul Latheef, an environmental activist who has become a businessman focused on reducing the nation’s dependence on plastics.
“We cannot simply say ‘NO’ to plastics,” he says.
“It’s going to be a step-by-step process. Everything from the buttons on your shirt to the panels inside your car is made up of plastic.
“We’ll need to make the switch slowly. And in the meantime, we need to do everything we can to reduce the burden (wastage) caused by the plastics already.
“One way we can do that is to recycle it. Unlike most stainless steel or glass bottles; plastic bottles and other containers – especially those made up of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – cannot be recycled. These contain harmful carcinogenic chemicals that leech into the contents inside.
“So, your best option would be to dispose of it carefully in dedicated trash cans. Most malls come with the facility to segregate the waste before dropping it inside.
Shijas then reveals that there are companies in Oman that take care of plastic recycling. However, he believes that a lot of plastics still end up in dumpsites as they fail to get segregated at transfer stations completely.
But all is not lost, says Shijas.
“You and I can make a difference by simply making a switch from plastic bottles to stainless steel ones. It’s a one-time purchase, and you can easily reuse them as you please. Also, jute and fabric bags are also in, and making use of those reusable bags can reduce your dependence on plastic bags provided by several supermarkets in Oman.”
Recycling: a lost concept in Oman?
As Shijas acknowledges, the Sultanate is moving quickly towards recycling and recommends the careful disposal of materials to reduce their impact on the environment.
However, a report published by EcoMena on waste management suggests that Oman is “yet to realise the recycling potential of its municipal waste stream”.
The goals of be’ah in achieving a country with a 100 per cent waste recycling is underway but there are steps people can take from their own homes to help aid the transformation:
1. Conduct a quick poll to find out the items in your house that you can recycle. Plastic pet bottles and containers are a big yes, but take away bottle caps and throw them along with the trash since they are harder to recycle.
2. Dedicate space in your house for a recycle bin and make sure you drop items in it.
3. Crush plastic containers, bottles, and cardboard boxes to save space. The more space you save, the easier it is for others to drop in their recyclable items.
4. If you have items such as clothing that you do not use and can be recycled, you can give it a wash and donate it at a nearby collection point.
Waste water recycling – sewage treatment
While we’re slowly achieving the targets set by be’ah, Haya Water is undertaking several projects of wastewater recycling – or sewage treatment – in the country. As per the recently published papers, the masterplan for the same began in 2013.
By the year 2026, Haya Water intends to maximise the consumption of treated water up to 67 per cent. In addition, it also aims to ensure that sufficient quantities of treated effluent meet the needs of the Muscat Municipality and other customers.
Effluent water is essentially wastewater that flows out of a treatment plant, sewer or industrial outfall.
The water, after reaching the sewer, is directed towards the treatment plant, which will undertake a series of three treatments to rid the water off impurities and solids waste.
After treatment, the water is sent to:
1. Golf Courses (such as The Wave, Muscat Hills, and PDO Gold), and Sport Stadiums for its landscaping needs.
2. Muscat Municipality for landscaping of green areas, parks, etc.
3. The Ministry of Transport and Communication for road Projects.
4. Commercial and Industrial units for its operational needs.