Trail of the low-carbon footprint

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The pandemic has summarily proved that working towards a sustainable planet is the need of the hour. Here’s how UAE’s eco-warriors are going green — in their own ways... and very innovatively

By Anjaly Thomas

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Published: Sat 10 Jul 2021, 10:39 PM

The threat of global warming is real. Like the rest of the world, I fret over glacier melts, droughts and heat waves. But my earth-warrior friend, never averse to voicing her opinion, put the blame squarely on me going as far as connecting my irresponsible lifestyle to Australian bushfires. I suspect she’d been listening to Greta Thunberg, the way she was going on about it with much passion.

“Buying less clothes would be a good start for you… May as well go easy on the meat while you are at it,” she stated, picking up a piece of cauliflower fritter, ignoring the “non-veg” version completely. “Or buy from a thrift store and travel less.”

Growing up, not having an older sister meant my exposure to ‘used clothing’ was naught and living on a farm always meant fresh meat — cues that formed my lifestyle. How was I to know that the things I took for granted were slowly but surely adding to my carbon emissions and ruining the planet?

She was right about the clothes, perhaps. Having one too many is not cool. But I scored one when I announced that I did buy second-hand goods too — like books. Overall, I agreed with her: individuals can make a difference by reducing their personal greenhouse gas emissions with little or no financial investments.

The small ‘big idea’

A journey with sustainability that began in 2018 took roots over the pandemic when Alison Rego’s 8-year-old daughter expressed a desire to stop eating meat. The Dubai-based sales and marketing professional admits she didn’t take the matter seriously till one day her daughter stopped eating meat. Completely. “I eventually gave in. Our decision was not as simple as stopping meat [and dairy, since it’s an animal product] consumption, but a detailed study of its origins and its threat to the environment and our own health,” is how she explains her decision.

Not only did mother and daughter switch to a plant-based diet, they also made changes around the house: switching to a water filtration system that runs on self-charging battery, using metal straws and reusable cutlery, and shopping at select stores that allow them to exchange old for new or pre-loved items. “My daughter is a tiny earth warrior in her own way… she has been taught to use her toys and clothes well — after she has enough of them, she ‘rehomes’ them.”

Meanwhile, Deepti Guruprasad, a Dubai-based homemaker with a passion to save the environment, begins her day chanting a mantra: Reduce, recycle, reuse — the 3Rs. She keeps the cycle running in very simple ways: growing her vegetables in her balcony and saying NO to plastic even if it means carrying groceries in a cloth bag.

“As a vegetarian, I have a steady supply of raw kitchen waste that I diligently compost and use to fertilise my balcony garden,” she says. “Besides being a relatively easy process to adopt, it makes use of kitchen waste productively. In the non-summer season, I rarely have to buy vegetables as I grow most of them myself.”

Deepti learnt to make compost and bio-enzymes using simple home waste and identified vendors/stores that allowed customers to bring their own bags and bottles. “I take my own jar for peanut butter,” she says proudly. “There is no shame in being environmentally conscious.”

Her passion has become an example for other residents in her apartment complex who now segregate waste as much as possible. She has collaborated with a recycling centre to collect the segregated waste from their building every week. “I became a member of an education club set up to encourage children to adopt the 3Rs. But today, even the adults have bought into this idea and are actively making changes in their lifestyle.”

Keeping landfills burden-free is key

Dubai-based Rika Bothra Sinha is making sustainable feminine hygiene products that are safe and minimises burden on the planet. The co-owner of Plastfree ME (launched in the UAE in November 2020), a start-up that produces safe intimate hygiene products, Rika is all for women’s health safety and reducing carbon footprints in every possible way.

“By using alternative eco-friendly products in our day-to-day lives, we can all contribute to a greener earth for our future generations,” she says. “Natural sanitary pads do not add to the accumulation of plastic waste in the environment and are bio-degradable, unlike the synthetic ones that carry 3.5gm of petrochemical plastic and releases about 21gm of carbon dioxide in the process and stay in the landfills for hundreds of years.”

Turning the focus on children is Dubai-based podcast host and midwife Zoe Cresswell with her affordable and reusable range of baby products, particularly diapers, billions of which end up in the landfill every year. She hit upon the idea after the birth of her second child, following a brainstorming session with her husband. “It is estimated that a child gets through 5,000-6,000 disposable diapers before they are toilet trained. In the UK and US alone, 23 billion nappies end up in landfill each year. Cloth diapers easily last through several children if they are cared for and 20 diapers could easily last up to 5 years,” she explains.

She is set to launch cloth swim nappies that will be locally produced. “Being very aware of the environmental impact of disposable nappies, I feel it is important that we help in some small way to help protect our planet.” Cloth nappies have also been found to keep babies’ bodies cooler, unlike the disposables, which is also a better reason to switch.

The science of the matter

Environmental scientist and co-founder of Environment and Sustainability in Thriving Solutions (Dubai-based) Dima Maroun believes that the biggest challenge in following a sustainable path is changing people’s behaviour and mindset. “A person can reduce their carbon footprint by up to ¼ if they reduce their intake of red meat — but for it to really take effect, one must be open to the idea of making the switch.” She stresses, environmental education is important. “This can be done through schools by incorporating the idea of sustainability in almost all the units of inquiry.”

Dima says her journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle began early on. For her, it has meant cutting down meat consumption, shopping locally, lowering food waste, and composting leftover food waste as well as garden waste. “The best way to prevent food waste is to make a meal plan and shop only for what you need.” Some small, easily implementable tips she offers include driving on cruise control on long stretches, minimising unnecessary trips, replacing air-conditioning thermostats that do not have an auto function, replacing incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs, replacing old appliances with more energy-efficient ones and so on.

“My love for nature translated into my choice of subjects — mainly geology and biology, and, later, environmental sciences. Wherever we live, we recycle our waste, buy used items of clothing — considering that the apparel industry is a close second to the petroleum industry and is responsible for 10 per cent of annual global carbon emissions.”

On a bigger scale

While individuals are doing their fair share in a bid to save the planet, Neutral Fuels, the first biorefinery in the Middle East and the largest producer of biofuel in the Gulf region, founded by greentech entrepreneur Karl W. Feilder, is approaching the matter differently.

Feilder aims at creating a circular economy by transforming locally-sourced waste cooking oil into locally-consumed biofuel, a commercially viable drop-in replacement for the harmful fossil fuel used in diesel engines. The used cooking oil is refined locally into biofuel for use in the UAE’s transportation fleets of trucks and school buses.

Neutral Fuels works with local clients including McDonalds, Dulsco, Del Monte, Nestlé, IKEA, and has been involved in strategic projects alongside ENOC, Dubai World Trade Centre, and, most recently, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway tourism project. “The net zero biofuel is a clean, green renewable fuel that immediately reduces transport carbon emissions to zero, enabling organisations to significantly reduce their contribution to climate change,” he explains.

According to Feilder, Neutral Fuels recycled 13,258,510 litres of locally-sourced used cooking oil (UCO) between 2011 and 2020, which saved around 33 million kgs of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent, a standard unit for measuring carbon footprints) for the UAE. “These numbers are expected to double through the newly-established biorefinery in Abu Dhabi, which is the first-ever commercial biofuels facility there, giving a combined UAE capacity of 12 million litres of biofuel annually.”

Meanwhile, re-greening the earth is a mission statement adopted by coffee corporations like Coffee Planet. The company has partnered with the Eden Reforestation Project and pledges to plant a tree for every box of bio-degradable coffee capsules sold via donations. Robert Jones, CEO of Coffee Planet, explains how this helps to provide sustainable employment to local communities, which, in turn, restore and protect their natural environment: to date, over 583m local species trees have been planted across South and Central America, Africa and Asia with over 20 million trees added each month.

“People from local communities are hired as the workforce,” he adds. By addressing the link between deforestation and extreme poverty, Eden has developed an effective model for reforestation.

What we eat vs how we eat

Dubai-based biochemist Oz Erbas and marketing technologist Katerina Papatryfon launched Sprout Foods as part of their mission to feed children wholesome and nutritious food — in line with the UAE’s 2051 Food Strategy to change its food system to become more self-sustaining and less wasteful. Oz explains the mechanism of the region’s first full-circle reusable packaging food business: “About 70 per cent of the ingredients that go into our food are locally produced — which helps to create employment opportunities. Our meals are made with 100 per cent whole plant foods and we follow a zero-waste direct-to-consumer channel, and reuse our glass containers thus drastically eliminating packaging waste. Our target customers are children between 1-10, our food is made to order — another way to ensure zero waste.” This concept works because the health and environment-conscious parent community in the UAE is all for a healthier life, Katerina explains.

Locally, the green thumb rules

Lockdown gave me enough time to read and do the math. Scientists and researchers are on war footing to create awareness on greenhouse gases. If we are to hold the global temperature rise to 2 degree or less, every one of us alive must collectively work to bringing down our CF to 1.87 tons per year. Although the UAE has a high per capita emission of over 20 tons, Vision 2021 is targeting a sustainable environment and infrastructure, and integrating climate change measures into national policies.

Personally, the subject of climate change is rather overwhelming. The science behind it is complex and there is plenty of grey overshadowing the root cause, but, that said, there is a simple way to keep per capita emission in check — by first understanding the urgency.

The more I read, the more I am made aware that, globally, emissions are linked to what we put on our plates. The verdict is out: switching to a more environmentally-friendly diet (read: vegetarian) is a better choice. I have no beef with broccoli or, worse, cabbage, but I suppose one must look at the positive side of the situation. I eye my cauliflower steak with some apprehension, but this is my alternative to an Angus steak.

And in my defence, combined carbon emissions from international flights and maritime shipping is way lower than the petroleum and garment industries. Just saying.

(Anjaly is an author and travel writer based in Dubai. She tweets @ThomasAnjaly and her Insta handle is @travelwithanjaly)

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