Arabian Blights

Across Arab countries per capita waste generation ranges between 0.5 kg and 1.5 kg per day, with statistics indicating that organic waste accounts for over half of the total Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in some nations. While the rate of waste generation is growing across the whole region, the rate differs from country to country, due to factors such as social conditions and wealth.

Social, economic and industrial development in the Arab region, coupled with an expanding population has created an explosion in the generation of solid waste over recent decades. Dr Abdallah Nassour and colleagues from the University of Rostock examine some of the difficulties the region must overcome if it is to embrace a modern approach to solid waste management.

Across Arab countries per capita waste generation ranges between 0.5 kg and 1.5 kg per day, with statistics indicating that organic waste accounts for over half of the total Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in some nations. While the rate of waste generation is growing across the whole region, the rate differs from country to country, due to factors such as social conditions and wealth.

Waste dumping is still a typical form of disposal in the region

In many countries up to 50% of the waste generated goes uncollected, and the waste that it collected is mainly mixed with industrial and medical waste during handling and disposal. The typical method of municipal waste disposal in most of the region is dumping, where it is poorly managed and lacks most of the basic engineering and sanitary measures for the collection and treatment of gas and leachate. The inability of the existing waste management systems to cope with the growing waste generation rates has led to significant health and environmental problems in most Arab countries.

In recent years some Arab countries have introduced the integrated solid waste management concept. Collection and sorting, composting, incineration of medical wastes and sanitary landfills are starting to be implemented, while recycling, reuse and resource recovery are still at the initial stages.

Legislation and basic principles

With the rising environmental awareness in the Arab region environmental protection and waste management have been given high priority in the political agenda. Most Arab countries have made efforts to organise solid waste management with the implementation of several laws and regulations. In some cases foreign rules and regulation were enacted without any customisation to suit the characteristics of the country. Some countries in the region have also agreed to and signed the Basel convention but are struggling to fulfil their commitments under this agreement. A lack of legislations and weak implementation is considered one of the main challenges facing waste management in the region.

Framework and responsibility

Waste management in the region is one of the major responsibilities of local government, with no significant participation by the private sector. In some countries local private companies are involved in the collection and transport of solid waste and some various recycling activities.

Organisational frameworks are defined by some countries, but poorly implemented, and disrupted by the centralisation of authorities at national level. In addition, a lack of action by government institutions, a lack of investment by the private sector, and the absence of public participation in decision making have all hampered the development of proper solid waste management practices in the region.

The fees for managing waste are generally collected via trade taxes or as part of properties and building taxes, but in some countries the relevant ministries and local authorities are responsible for financing the industry. The fees collected are very low, covering no more than 30% of the costs. Furthermore, in some cases the fees go to a central treasury and are distributed with unclear criteria. The funding system for waste management is mainly characterised by the absence of financial incentives and effective cost recovery mechanisms. There is an attempt toward increasing charges for waste management services. In Jordan a successful scheme has been introduced that is projected to recover 80% of the costs associated with managing waste via electricity bills.

The region also suffers from a deficit of trained waste management professionals, with most of the industry's employees coming from low wage countries and being untrained for the work. The monthly income of the employees is €50 to €200.

Generation and composition

Predicting the volume and composition of solid waste in Arab countries is not an easy task, due to the lack of reliable statistical data and reliable inventory processes on the waste quantities produced across different sectors.

Recyclable materials such as plastic, glass, paper, metals and textiles are not separately collected, and household waste is mixed with other types of waste when it is collected - increasing the amount of municipal waste generated. The percentage of biodegradable material in municipal solid waste is very high and varies from 50% to 70%, comprising mainly fruits, vegetables and food scraps while the proportion of wood is very low. Municipal waste also contains hazardous substances such as drug residues, expired medicines, chemicals, paints, batteries and other materials (figure 1).

Figure 1: The physical composition of municipal solid waste in the Arab region

Storage and collection

Depending on the finances available either plastic or steel 120 litre to 1100 litre bins are used, with a current trend to supply plastic bins of between 240 litres and 1100 litres in collaboration with German and other European countries. German companies have established some plastic bin production facilities in the UAE. A number of separate collection pilot projects have been carried out in Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Development assistance programs in some countries like Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, provide finance for modern waste collection vehicles imported from Germany, Western Europe and Japan, while other countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan have their own production facilities and supply neighbouring countries with collection vehicles.

Recycling and recovery

Across most of the region no recycling industry actually exists. Approximately 1% - 3% of the total waste generated is recovered as recyclable materials, such as PET, other plastics, metals and paper, these materials are sorted from the waste containers and disposal sites by scavengers. Paper, metals and plastics are sorted, marketed and recovered in local recycling facilities, with PET being marketed internationally. Food scraps and organic matter are separated by the informal sector to be reused as animal feed - which may cause hygiene issues. The integration of the informal sector in recycling activities is considered necessary in the region due to social and organisational reasons, as well as the significant economic benefit will from it.

Treatment and final disposal

Most of the governments in Arab countries recognise their waste management issues and are seeking to implement legal, organisational and technical solutions to the problem. However these efforts are often hampered by a lack of know-how and inadequate financial investment in building and operating facilities. Many waste treatment plants around the region have closed due to mismanagement, and some have even closed without ever operating because the technology chosen was not suitable for the local conditions. Currently there are some activities to construct and operate Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) plants to produce high calorific value Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF), which can be used as a secondary fuel in cement industry.

Plans and investments: Egypt

A pilot project for source seperated recycling collection in Jordan

Currently there are 50 sorting and composting plants, most of which are not working. Insufficient capacity, defects in construction, poor operation and maintenance are a few of the problems. However, with a few modifications these plants could be made operational again in a short time. While there have been many proposals, all of them unsuccessful. In Egypt there is a strong demand for proper waste management and interest in the implementing MBT systems. The market is controlled by local companies which use simple techniques. International involvement does exist through joint ventures, development aid and co-operation with local partners. Opportunities exist in Egypt for foreign companies with highly developed MBT techniques, producing high calorific fractions for energy recovery in cement plants. Landfills are located in large cities while small dumps service small cities and towns.


Meanwhile in Jordan recycling activities are currently taking place together with a composting plant. Recycling activities are carried out by the informal sector and the compost produced by animal agriculture has a very high economic value. Therefore, there is the potential for more plants to be implemented. The country is currently working on developing solid waste management policies, promoting environmentally sound disposal sites, recycling practices and minimising waste generation. The main focus is on the topic of separate collection, treatment, landfill rehabilitation, utilisation of alternative fuels in the cement industry and biological treatment. There are some World Bank projects focusing on landfill construction and operation, and finance was provided for transfer stations and treatment plants. A pilot project for simple MBT in Amman is in the preparation phase. There are about 26 landfills around the country, with four of them considered to be regional.


Small scale municipal waste recovery facilities have proved effective in Tunisia. It was in 1997 that the Eco-Lef public system was established for the recovery and reuse of used packaging. The success of the Tunisian solid waste management system is significant in the region, due to the strong legislative framework and the institutional response to this framework. Currently there are number of test and pilot projects running in the country such as a tyre recycling centre, biogas plant and two treatment and composting projects for the separation of recyclable materials and organic matter. The concept of these projects will be implemented on the biggest landfill site in Tunisia. Nine standard landfills and the necessary transfer stations have been built and are operated by the government agency for waste, ANGED. The small landfills were not built with leachate treatment plants. Therefore, the leachate is transported and treated in central treatment plants.


MBT facilities exist in the country but some plants were constructed and closed after a short period of time. One plant is barely running due to a lack of professional know-how. Currently no facilities are available to treat household and only two plants are processing construction waste.

The idea of pilot and testing projects is not recognised in Kuwait, with decision makers reliant on purchasing complete technologies from abroad, providing good opportunities for international companies with the appropriate technologies for the planned projects.

There are 17 old landfills in the country and the government and the environmental authority are working on a long-term solution for this problem for landfill rehabilitation.

Saudi Arabia

While in Saudi Arabia, many MBT plants have been built in the last two decades, but they have closed after a short period due to poor operation or inappropriate planning, construction or technological process. The market for solid waste management is controlled by local companies, with five of them wining most of the contracts. There is no enforcement by legislation to treat waste before disposal. There are efforts to establish an environmental law, but it's not possible to predict when it will be approved.


In 2004 Syria introduced a master plan for waste management. It includes the construction of more than 40 landfills, 200 transfer station and 100 treatment plants. Finance was allocated for this plan, but until now only some projects have been implemented due to a lack of the know-how by decision makers.


Many facilities are still in the construction phase. The first modern mechanical waste treatment plant with a separate fermentation stage was installed in Sida city in 2005, but is not yet operating. In Lebanon there is not enough space for landfilling, or any solutions that require a large area. Therefore the trend is towards incineration as alternative treatment option. The main problem in the country is dealing with old landfills and landfill rehabilitation, where consultancy in this area is highly needed.

Dr. Abdallah Nassour and Prof. Dr. Michael Nelles are associate professors, University of Rostock, Germany, department of Waste Management and Material Flow.

Prof. Dr. Michael Nelles is associate professor, University of Rostock, Germany, Department of Waste Management and Material Flow.

Ayman Naas PhD Student, University of Rostock, Department of Waste Management and Material Flow.

Mohamad Al-Ahmad PhD Student, University of Rostock, Germany, Department of Waste Management and Material Flow.

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