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Environmentalists, stakeholders react to ‘Dubai Can’ initiative

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Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum unveiled a city-wide sustainability initiative called ‘Dubai Can’ on February 15, bringing joy to environmentalists and stakeholders in the emirate.

The initiative is a call to action that seeks to inspire the skyscraper-studded city to ditch single-use plastic bottles in favor of water fountains that will soon dot the city’s most populous areas, 50 of which have been initially announced.

A partial map of Dubai city that shows the location of the 'Dubai Can' water stations. (Dubai Media Office)
A partial map of Dubai city that shows the location of the 'Dubai Can' water stations. (Dubai Media Office)

“People need the government to set the direction and the government needs the people to follow it,” the founder of Companies for Good Marc Cirera told Al Arabiya English when asked about the latest Dubai government initiative.

The initiative was launched as part of the UAE city’s ambition to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) and the 2050 Net Zero goal.

“The UAE Net Zero 2050 strategic initiative aligns with the Paris Agreement, which calls on countries to prepare long-term strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degree Celsius…” according to a UAE government statement.

“We feel a sense of responsibility to drive change, not only by raising awareness but also by taking action,” Managing Director of Talabat UAE Tatiana Rahal said in a statement to Al Arabiya English.

Talabat, primarily an online food and grocery delivery company, is the founding partner of the Dubai Can initiative.

The city now has 20 Talabat-branded water stations that Rahal said will provide a city-wide solution to the “communities we operate in as well as delivery riders,” the latter of which there are over 10,000 reported in the UAE.

Photo shared on social media shows one of Talabat's 20 branded water refill stands across Dubai. (LinkedIN)
Photo shared on social media shows one of Talabat's 20 branded water refill stands across Dubai. (LinkedIN)

Talabat also clarified that they were “not making any revenue” from the initiative.

“Every bit counts,” Cirera said, adding that “the fact that we are constantly on social media raising awareness about the issue, showing the plastic that we find,” referring to the organization’s large hauls during routine clean-up drives, cements the need for change when the use of plastic is concerned.

Plastic ban in Dubai

The Dubai Can initiative was launched just over one week after the government announced that it would begin charging a fee on plastic bags starting from July 1, with an aim of outlawing them entirely in two years over “environmental concerns,” according to the Dubai Media Office (DMO).

The government said the ban was necessary as animals, including both camels and turtles have died from the plastic, according to the DMO report.

Cirera, an eight-year-long Dubai resident, recollects a disturbing scene where he saw a group of camels were spotted eating trash left behind by campers.

Another environmentally concious entity in the UAE, ‘ahlanwasahlan think tank llc,’ headed by CEO Safi Roshdy replied to the ban on plastic bags with a question – “What will they [desert campers] use to put the trash away?”

She claims to have encountered oxo-biodegradable bags, which are standard in the UAE, that partially decompose under the unforgiving Dubai sun and “pose a threat” to the natural habitat.

Roshdy also conducts routine clean up drives in an attempt to raise awareness on environmentally conscious practices. She calls her entity a “watchdog” for foul environmental practices, campaigns, and claims.

Roshdy also said “it’s the norm everywhere,” in reference to drinking water fountains which are freely available in most developed countries globally. “If you are used to refilling at other parts of the world, then you would expect that accessibility in the UAE, and especially in Dubai, since we are attracting a large number of tourists.”

Safi Roshdy (center) and Ahlan Wa Sahlan volunteers at a clean-up drive in a mangrove forest in Umm Al Quwain on June 19, 2021. (Supplied)
Safi Roshdy (center) and Ahlan Wa Sahlan volunteers at a clean-up drive in a mangrove forest in Umm Al Quwain on June 19, 2021. (Supplied)

Dubai plastic bottle consumption

A typical Dubai resident consumes 450 plastic water bottles in a year, according to a Dubai Tourism official’s estimate as reported by the DMO.

According to the Australian division of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the lifecycle of plastic bottle is 450 years, and the “energy required to produce and transport plastic water bottles could fuel an estimated 1.5 million cars for a year.”

In response to the new initiative, Roshdy called on Dubai government employees to “take on the campaign” and lead the way as an example to the residents of the UAE.

“Let’s go ahead and implement it in government offices,” she said.

Community awareness is a big part of campaigns that call for change, agree both the environmental change-makers.

“If you feel that you have a role in the community, then it does help you feel that this is your desert, your environment and that you need to take care of it,” Roshdy said.

Cirera echoed her thoughts and added, “let’s do something at the individual level as a family or at workplaces as companies.”

Aluminum cans at EXPO 2020 Dubai

Expo 2020 Dubai, one of the country’s flagship events, uses the PepsiCo-owned Aquafina aluminum canned water and promotes the consumption of water through one of 30 water dispensers. The Expo site is also dotted with 37 drinking fountains.

File photo shows an Aquafina-branded still-water can sold at EXPO 2020 Dubai.
File photo shows an Aquafina-branded still-water can sold at EXPO 2020 Dubai.

“Since the opening of Expo 2020 Dubai, more than 250,000 plastic bottles have been saved through the use of [drinking fountains],” said Aamer Sheikh, CEO of PepsiCo Middle East in a statement to Al Arabiya English.

Although the canned water option is in commercial circulation at the EXPO 2020 site, PepsiCo did not clarify whether it will replace plastic water bottles in the long run.

“Dubai Can accelerates systemic change, and we can’t wait to take a more active role in driving meaningful progress through collaborative, holistic solutions,” said the PepsiCo chair.

Another Dubai-based bottled water supplied, Mai Dubai, owned and operated by the government authority DEWA said they were “unable to comment” on the Dubai Can initiative and its consequent short- and long-term impact.

Tap water in the UAE is desalinated and certified ‘safe to drink’ by the Emirates Authority for Standardization and Metrology. However, many residents opt for a subscription-based five-gallon plastic bottle of water for routine consumption requirements.

Despite the ‘safe to drink’ certification, overhead apartment water tanks in the UAE are known not to adhere to the strict codes of upkeep, resulting in residents requiring to spend on a water filtration system.

For consumable tap water in Dubai, Roshdy explains, “the only issue we might run into is any debris from the water tank or the pipes; you will need a carbon filter.”

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A World Health Organization (WHO) study from 2011 confirms that desalinated water is increasingly being used under conditions of freshwater scarcity.

“The UAE has made huge progress,” Cirera said, talking about the progressive adoption of environmental projects. “And I think it will continue because in a couple of years there is COP28. They have no choice but to invest in this sector or they will be criticized globally if they don’t practice what they preach.”

The UAE won the bid to host COP28 which is an internationally participated event focused on climate action and sustainable development.

Cirera has but one vision for his organization: “We don’t exist anymore,” as he hopes for protection to become the norm over refurbishing existing habitats.

File photo shows the Jubail Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi, a biodiverse offering in a protected environment. (Abu Dhabi Media Office)
File photo shows the Jubail Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi, a biodiverse offering in a protected environment. (Abu Dhabi Media Office)

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