Dubai: Why Expo 2020 was the ‘most sustainable’ world fair in history

With the diversion of more than 90 per cent of cumulative waste collected before and during Expo 2020 Dubai from landfills, the event can be labelled as the most sustainable World Fair ever, according to Joelle Saab, Head of Expo 2020 Project at Dulsco, which was the Official Waste Management Partner of Expo 2020 Dubai.

During the six-month duration of the event, as well as during the construction period prior, more than 1.1 million tons of waste was generated at the Expo site. Of this, a vast proportion was recycled, upcycled, or repurposed to ensure the best waste management for the first-ever Expo to be held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, said Saab.

Expo 2020 Dubai – the world’s biggest event since the outbreak of Covid-19 – took place a year later than originally scheduled due to the pandemic. It recorded more than 24 million visitors between October 1 2021 and March 31 2022. The next edition will take place in Japan in 2025.

Ahead of Expo’s launch, waste consisted mainly of construction or concrete debris, while during the event, a variety of waste items, including paper, glass, cans, and food waste, were recycled into different products. In addition, according to Saab, Dulsco used eco-friendly compostable bags for their waste management services at Expo to avoid plastic bags.

“Our main objective was to divert a minimum of 85 per cent of waste from landfill. To achieve this, we employed a three-stream bin system – one for landfill waste, one for mixed recyclables and one for organic waste. Waste management containers were deployed both at the front and back of house of the pavilions,” said Saab.

In addition, videos were played on screens at multiple sites across Expo to educate visitors about the importance of waste segregation, she added.

“Through the video messaging and branded waste bins, we wanted to engage visitors from all around the world. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to understand the concept of waste segregation and what to put in each bin. We found it to be a very successful strategy.”

Reducing the carbon footprint

The waste collection and management company, which employs over 12,000 people in UAE alone, put in place a facility within the Expo site where all the waste collected was brought, emptied, and sorted into different bunkers or waste streams.

According to the Head of Expo 2020 Project at Dulsco, which deployed a team of around 150 people on the site, the company was making a conscious effort to reduce CO2 emissions and therefore planned its waste transportation methodology accordingly.

“To reduce the number of external trips, we had a transfer station operation inside our central waste facility at Expo 2020, where waste was transferred into ejector trailers to be sent to Dulsco’s treatment facilities offsite. Organic waste, however, was treated mostly onsite, with Dulsco deploying composters to tackle the food waste generated from restaurants.”

According to Joelle Saab, organic waste was treated via the Refuse-Derived Fuel (RDF) Plant located inside its central waste facility. The plant is designed to treat municipal solid waste and produce RDF that can be used as an alternative fuel source to power the plant itself or even other factories across the UAE.

She emphasised the need to create awareness among people about waste management.

“It is important to make recycling services available everywhere in the UAE. To implement this idea practically, we refurbished an old Dulsco commercial bus into a recycling bus, which drives around different communities to provide free recycling services to residents who do not have access to recycling bins. It is vital that every new community, every new commercial centre, and every new area must have recycling bins and recycling services available.”

Highlighting residents’ responsibilities regarding waste management, she said people’s approach to consumption has to change because they tend to buy and waste a lot of things. Reducing consumption will help cut down waste.

“The most important concept to understand is waste segregation. The moment you mix food waste with cartons and other recyclable items, it makes it very difficult for the waste to be recycled. So, general waste must be separated from recyclable waste.”

Joelle Saab revealed that the waste leaving the Expo 2020 site did not go to landfill but to the company’s facilities. She stated that Dulsco’s material recovery facility, located in Ras Al Khor, segregated all the mixed recyclables. After the segregation process, it was sorted into different types of single-stream material, ready for the recycling process.

Converting bulky items into furniture

Dulsco converted all bulky waste into new furniture and other decor items, which were sold online via its New Old and Reloved website.

“This allows people to buy sustainable and eco-friendly new items made from recycled material.”

Plastic to t-shirts

Plastic collected at Expo 2020 was recycled into t-shirts and other apparel in collaboration with various small and medium businesses.

Glass for trophies, memorabilia

Glass collected from the site was transformed into memorabilia, trophies, fruit jars, etc.

E-vehicles, biofuel

Ms Saab explained that the Dulsco vehicles used to collect waste within the Expo site were powered by biofuel, made from previously used cooking oil collected from the site and recycled.

“We also had electric vehicles like buggies and towing cars across the site. As such, from a transportation perspective, we not only reduced the number of trips leaving Expo, but we were also conscious of the vehicle emissions within the site.”