Municipal Waste Management in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has been witnessing rapid industrialization, high population growth rate and fast urbanization which have resulted in increased levels of pollution and waste. Solid waste management is becoming a big challenge for the government and local bodies with each passing day. With population of around 35 million, Saudi Arabia generates more than 15 million tons of solid waste per year. The per capita waste generation is estimated at 1.5 to 1.8 kg per person per day.

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Solid waste generation in the three largest cities – Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam – exceeds 6 million tons per annum which gives an indication of the magnitude of the problem faced by civic bodies.  More than 75 percent of the population is concentrated in urban areas which make it necessary for the government to initiate measures to improve recycling and waste management scenario in the country.

In Saudi Arabia, municipal solid waste is collected from individual or community bins and disposed of in landfills or dumpsites. Saudi waste management system is characterized by lack of waste disposal and tipping fees. Recycling, reuse and energy recovery is still at an early stage, although they are getting increased attention. Waste sorting and recycling are driven by an active informal sector. Recycling rate ranges from 10-15%, mainly due to the presence of the informal sector which extracts paper, metals and plastics from municipal waste.

Recycling activities are mostly manual and labor intensive. Composting is also gaining increased interest in Saudi Arabia due to the high organic content of MSW (around 40%).  Efforts are also underway to deploy waste-to-energy technologies in the Kingdom. All activities related to waste management are coordinated and financed by the government.

The Saudi government is aware of the critical demand for waste management solutions, and is investing heavily in solving this problem. The 2017 national budget allocated SR 54 billion for the municipal services sector, which includes water drainage and waste disposal. The Saudi government is making concerted efforts to improve recycling and waste disposal activities. Saudi visa for qualified waste management professionals will also go a long way in improving waste management situation in the country.

Solid Waste Management – History and Future Outlook

The disposal of municipal solid waste is the second most major concern for public health in developing countries because of population explosion, rampant poverty and high urbanization rates combined with poor government funding to curb waste management. Factors such as waste composition, technologies and lack of infrastructure have been found to set apart the good management of solid wastes in developing nations. Municipal waste is mainly comprised of paper, vegetable matter, plastics, metals, textiles, rubber and glass. In some countries (developing as well as developed), municipal solid waste is mixed with medical wastes and this may pose health risk to waste handlers and general public.

Historically, burying the wastes is the most preferred method for waste management in many countries. This method is still used in many more countries. Tackling environmental issues has become more important and more preferred than pollution and consumption of unsustainable utilization of resources. Most importantly, the primary objective of waste management is to put emphasis on protecting the people and environment from potentially harmful effects of waste.

Methods of Solid Waste Management

Depending on the types of wastes generated, four methods of solid waste management has been used throughout the history, i.e. dumping, incineration, recycling and waste prevention. Waste generated from household is much different from industrial waste, agricultural waste, medical waste or mining wastes.

When wastes contain any hazardous component, or it has capability to become hazardous with time, poses very serious threat to environment and health. Hazardous wastes generated needs to be handled very carefully, with special techniques. This is one of the major reasons of open landfills are getting replaced with sanitary landfills.

At a landfill, wastes are covered with thick layer of soil. By the late 1950, this practice was very common for waste management across the world. Earlier landfills had considerable sludge and methane emissions, which were harmful to the environment as well as animal and human health. But these issues have been resolved largely by modern disposal methods, which were developed around 20 years ago. Modern landfills are equipped with thick layer of clay followed by plastic sheets. This method was practiced by some nations and still going on.

In 1930-1940, many cities in USA adopted new technology to curb waste issues by burning at high temperature, this method is known as incineration. During initial years, this method was not very efficient and emit very large amount of poisonous gasses, this is the major reason of incinerators shut down during that period. During mid-1970s, scientists modified incinerators to generate energy, which are known as waste to energy plants. But after around a decade, it has become major issue to build these plants, again because of emission issues.

With development of technology, waste burning in advanced form of incinerators became common in 1970s, researchers across the world bet on incinerators or waste to energy plants for solution to energy crisis in 1973. However, with realisation of impact on environment and air quality, it become very difficult to find location to build any waste to energy plants, mainly because of public opposition. Another issue with incinerator is production of ashes, which contain huge amount of heavy metals, toxic and inorganic compounds.

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Incineration is the most common waste-to-energy method used worldwide.

Future of Solid Waste Management

The overall concept of wastes needs to be considered economically, it will be more considered as economically viable product if waste is considered as an inefficiency of the production process not as rejected residue of waste product. A permanent rejection or heavy restriction into products which produces waste that cannot be accumulated back into the environment safely.

The major challenge in waste management is to persuade people/community to consider waste as a resource, rather than a liability on society, which can be created with more innovation and technological development of manufacturing industry, waste processing industry and new business model and plans.

This planning system will create circular economy where product value created by inputs (e.g. energy, materials, labour etc.) is extended by enabling a material that goes into circular economy, beyond product life. We go from mineral to metals to product then back to minerals/metals. By understanding economic cycle of waste, people will understand the creation of opportunities to more sustainable product in future with limited resources.