Solid Wastes in the Middle East

The high rate of population growth, urbanization and economic expansion in the Middle East is not only accelerating consumption rates but also increasing the generation rate of all  sorts of waste. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait rank in the top-ten worldwide in terms of per capita solid waste generation. The gross urban waste generation quantity from Middle East countries is estimated at more than 150 million tons annually.

Saudi Arabia produced 13 million tons of garbage in 2009. With an approximate population of about 28 million, the kingdom produces approximately 1.3 kilograms of waste per person every day.  According to a recent study conducted by Abu Dhabi Center for Waste Management, the amount of waste in UAE totaled 4.892 million tons, with a daily average of 6935 tons in the city of Abu Dhabi, 4118 tons in Al Ain and 2349 tons in the western region. Countries like Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar have astonishingly high per capita waste generation rate, primarily because of high standard of living and lack of awareness about sustainable waste management practices.

In Middle East countries, huge quantity of sewage sludge is produced on daily basis which presents a serious problem due to its high treatment costs and risk to environment and human health. On an average, the rate of wastewater generation is 80-200 litres per person each day and sewage output is rising by 25 percent every year. According to estimates from the Drainage and Irrigation Department of Dubai Municipality, sewage generation in the Dubai increased from 50,000 m3 per day in 1981 to 400,000 m3 per day in 2006.

Waste-to-Energy Prospects

Municipal solid waste in the Middle East is mainly comprised of organics, paper, glass, plastics, metals, wood etc. Municipal solid waste can be converted into energy by conventional technologies (such as incineration, mass-burn and landfill gas capture) or by modern conversion systems (such as anaerobic digestion, gasification and pyrolysis).

At the landfill sites, the gas produced by the natural decomposition of MSW is collected from the stored material and scrubbed and cleaned before feeding into internal combustion engines or gas turbines to generate heat and power. In addition, the organic fraction of MSW can be anaerobically stabilized in a high-rate digester to obtain biogas for electricity or steam generation.

Anaerobic digestion is the most preferred option to extract energy from sewage, which leads to production of biogas and organic fertilizer. The sewage sludge that remains can be incinerated or gasified/pyrolyzed to produce more energy. In addition, sewage-to-energy processes also facilitate water recycling.

Thus, municipal solid waste can also be efficiently converted into energy and fuels by advanced thermal technologies. Infact, energy recovery from MSW is rapidly gaining worldwide recognition as the 4th R in sustainable waste management system – Reuse, Reduce, Recycle and Recover.

Addressing India’s Waste Management Problems

Out of all the measures that are necessary in addressing India’s impending waste management crisis, the most efficient will be changes at the national policy and planning level. It is well-known among the small but growing waste management sector that urban India will hit rock bottom due to improper waste management.

Unfortunately, they think such a crisis is required to bring about policy changes, as they generally tend to happen only after the damage has been done. This attitude is unfortunate because it indicates a lack of or failed effort from the sector to change policy, and also the level of India’s planning and preparedness.

An average of 32,000 people will be added to urban India every day, continuously, until 2021. This number is a warning, considering how India’s waste management infrastructure went berserk trying to deal with just 25,000 new urban Indians during the last decade. The scale of urbanization in India and around the world is unprecedented with planetary consequences to Earth’s limited material and energy resources, and its natural balance.

Rate of increase in access to sanitation infrastructure generally lags behind the rate of urbanization by 33% around the world; however, the lack of planning and impromptu piecemeal responses to waste management issues observed in India might indicate a much wider gap. This means urban Indians will have to wait longer than an average urban citizen of our world for access to proper waste management infrastructure.

The clear trend in the outbreak of epidemic and public protests around India is that they are happening in the biggest cities in their respective regions. Kolkata, Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, and Srinagar are capitals of their respective states, and Coimbatore is the second largest city in Tamil Nadu. However, long term national level plans to improve waste management in India do not exist and guidance offered to urban local bodies is meager.

Apart from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), there has been no national level effort required to address the problem. Even though JnNURM was phenomenal in stimulating the industry and local governments, it was not enough to address the scale and extent of the problem. This is because of JnNURM is not a long term waste management financing program, sorts of which are required to tackle issues like solid waste management.

Are Cities Hands-tied or is Change Possible?

In the short term, municipal corporations have their hands tied and will not be able to deliver solutions immediately. They face the task of realizing waste management facilities inside or near cities while none of their citizens want them near their residences. Officials of Hyderabad’s municipal corporation have been conducting interviews with locals for about eight years now for a new landfill site, to no avail.

In spite of the mounting pressure, most corporations will not be able to close the dumpsites that they are currently using. This might not be the good news for which local residents could be waiting, but, it is important that bureaucrats, municipal officials and politicians be clear about it. Residents near Vellalore dump protested and blocked roads leading to the site because Coimbatore municipal officials repeatedly failed to fulfill their promises after every landfill fire incident.

Due to lack of existing alternatives, other than diverting waste fractionally by increasing informal recycling sector’s role, closing existing landfills would mean finding new sites.  Finding new landfills in and around cities is nearly impossible because of the track record of dumpsite operations and maintenance in India and the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon.

However, the corporations can and should take measures to reduce landfill fires and open burning, and control pollution due to leachate and odor and vector nuisance. This will provide much needed relief to adjacent communities and give the corporations time to plan better. While navigating through an issue as sensitive this, it is of the utmost importance that they work closely with the community by increasing clarity and transparency.

Municipal officials at the meeting repeatedly stressed the issue of scarcity of land for waste disposal, which led to overflowing dumpsites and waste treatment facilities receiving more waste than what they were designed for. Most municipal officials are of the sense that a magic solution is right around the corner which will turn all of their city’s waste into electricity or fuel oil or gas, or into recycled products. While such conversion is technologically possible with infinite energy and financial sources, that is not the reality.

Despite their inability to properly manage wastes, the majority of municipal officials consider waste as “wealth” when approached by private partners. Therefore, a significant portion of officials expect royalty from private investments without sharing business risk.

MSW to Energy at a Glance

MSW-to-Energy is the use of thermochemical and biochemical technologies to recover energy, usually in the form of electricity and steam, from urban wastes. These new technologies can reduce the volume of the original waste by 90%, depending upon composition and use of outputs. The main categories of MSW-to-energy technologies are physical technologies, which process waste to make it more useful as fuel; thermal technologies, which can yield heat, fuel oil, or syngas from both organic and inorganic wastes; and biological technologies, in which bacterial fermentation is used to digest organic wastes to yield fuel.

Components of MSW-to-Energy Systems

  1. Front-end MSW preprocessing
  2. Conversion unit (reactor or anaerobic digester)
  3. Gas cleanup and residue treatment plant
  4. Energy recovery plant (optional)
  5. Emissions clean up


  • Combustion of raw MSW, moisture less than 50%
  • Sufficient amount of oxygen is required to fully oxidize the fuel
  • Combustion temperatures are in excess of 850oC
  • Waste is converted into CO2 and water concern about toxics (dioxin, furans)
  • Any non-combustible materials (inorganic such as metals, glass) remain as a solid, known as bottom ash (used as feedstock in cement and brick manufacturing)
  • Fly ash APC (air pollution control residue) particulates, etc
  • Needs high calorific value waste to keep combustion process going, otherwise requires high energy for maintaining high temperatures

Anaerobic Digestion

  •  Well-known biochemical technology for organic fraction of MSW and domestic sewage.
  • Biological conversion of biodegradable organic materials in the absence of oxygen at mesophilic or thermophilic temperatures.
  • Residue is stabilized organic matter that can be used as soil amendment
  • Digestion is used primarily to reduce quantity of sludge for disposal / reuse
  • Methane gas is generated which is used for heat and power generation.


  • Can be seen as between pyrolysis and combustion (incineration) as it involves partial oxidation.
  • Exothermic process (some heat is required to initialize and sustain the gasification process).
  • Oxygen is added but at low amounts not sufficient for full oxidation and full combustion.
  • Temperatures are above 650oC
  • Main product is syngas, typically has net calorific value of 4 to 10 MJ/Nm3
  • Other product is solid residue of non-combustible materials (ash) which contains low level of carbon


  • Thermal degradation of organic materials through use of indirect, external source of heat
  • Temperatures between 300 to 850oC are maintained for several seconds in the absence of oxygen.
  • Product is char, oil and syngas composed primarily of O2, CO, CO2, CH4 and complex hydrocarbons.
  • Syngas can be utilized for energy production or proportions can be condensed to produce oils and waxes
  • Syngas typically has net calorific value (NCV) of 10 to 20 MJ/Nm

Plasma Gasification

  • Use of electricity passed through graphite or carbon electrodes, with steam and/or oxygen / air injection to produce electrically conducting gas (plasma)
  • Temperatures are above 3000oC
  • Organic materials are converted to syngas composed of H2, CO
  • Inorganic materials are converted to solid slag
  • Syngas can be utilized for energy production or proportions can be condensed to produce oils and waxes

MSW-to-energy technologies can address a host of environmental issues, such as land use and pollution from landfills, and increasing reliance on fossil fuels. In many countries, the availability of landfill capacity has been steadily decreasing due to regulatory, planning and environmental permitting constraints. As a result, new approaches to waste management are rapidly being written into public and institutional policies at local, regional and national levels.