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The United Arab Emirates is building one of the world’s largest waste-to-energy plants to deal with its growing trash load.

Dubai is constructing a $1.1 billion facility that will burn garbage to generate power. A smaller plant -- the UAE’s first on a commercial scale -- will start operating this year in the emirate of Sharjah. Once two other projects in Abu Dhabi are finished, the country may incinerate almost two-thirds of the household waste it currently produces.

Waste-to-energy produces emissions, which is why it’s usually considered suitable for disposing only the final remnants of trash after all recyclable materials have been extracted. The projects could make it harder for the UAE to net out carbon emissions, something it’s considering as a goal by 2050.

But the Persian Gulf state has few options to stop the giant heaps of plastic, paper and organic waste on the outskirts of its desert cities from piling higher. It has many facilities for sorting waste and some for recycling construction materials, tires and electronics, but very few that can convert household waste into new products.

Recycling plants require plenty of investment, too, yet don’t have the benefit of producing energy. And shipping trash to other countries is becoming more difficult. Those that used to import garbage, including China, no longer want to, while others such as Turkey face pressure from environmentalists to stop.

China’s recent ban on the importation of waste “has really changed the economic drivers," said John Ord, a U.K. business director at engineering firm Stantec Inc. “All of a sudden, we have a lot of waste that needs to be dealt with."

The UAE’s decision to burn most of its waste is unusual - only about 11% of the world’s rubbish is incinerated. While proponents argue the process prevents landfills piling up, and generates energy, it releases heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It also acts as a disincentive to recycle.

“It can become a feed-the-beast issue," said Ord. “It can actually work against investment in recycling because you need that waste to meet contractor requirements."

For Sharjah, opening the plant will mean it can plug its dump site. Bee’ah, the company managing Sharjah’s waste, says it will create green spaces and install a 120-megawatt solar-power facility on top, as well as produce hydrogen from the garbage to fuel its rubbish trucks.

Bee’ah Chief Executive Officer Khaled Al Huraimel said he wants to build more waste-to-energy facilities in the region, including in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

“They’re starting from scratch, but we started from scratch too," he said.


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