Natalie Sulieman collects every possible recyclable her family discards. She sorts the paper, cans, jars and bottles in bins, boxes and reusable grocery store bags, each weekend loading what's been collected into the back of her Jeep. She either drops it off near work, at the recycling centre at the American Community School in Abu Dhabi or, if she is heading to Dubai, to depots at Choithram's or Spinney's at Emirates House in Dubai.
The 32-year-old advertising executive, who works in the capital, has been reducing, reusing and recycling since she was a schoolgirl in Amman, Jordan. "Basically it's the simple things that matter," she says. "I'm really conscious about raising awareness... my mom taught me that." Eleven years spent living in Abu Dhabi have only spurred on her efforts. At home, she wanders around turning off her family's power sources and unplugging electronic devices. At work, she encourages her colleagues to turn off their laptops and reuse their plastic bottles.
"A lot of people do not care about the environment, and that frustrates me and makes me more devoted," she says. It is definitely not easy being green in the UAE, which may be why so many people do not even try. But it's hard to deny that the time has passed for those who are doing nothing to do something. And others who are doing something need to do more. As one woman wrote on a Dubai forum devoted to eco-matters: "I think the problem here is that not many people do these types of things, so other people think: 'Why bother... what change can I make?' But collectively, small changes make a big difference."
One of the first places to start is water, and one of the best ways to do so is to remember that every drop must be desalinated, an expensive and energy-intensive process, points out Gayapri Raghwa, a specialist programme developer in educational awareness at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD). "Water is at a premium," she says. The UAE's per-person water consumption, 252 litres per day, is one of the highest in the world. For a desert nation, that makes no sense.
The Heroes of the UAE water programme, launched in January by Emirates Wildlife Society in association with the World Wildlife Fund (EWS-WWF), asks us to use simple, barely perceptible methods to cut our consumption by up to 46 per cent. Just turning off the tap each time the water is not in direct use will save 34 litres per day, says Tamara Withers, a sustainability officer for EWS-WWF. A shower uses three times less water than a bath. Dishwashers should run only when they are full. Valves can be easily added to taps and shower heads to reduce water flow without losing pressure.
Tanya Hosn, a 38-year-old mother of one living in Dubai, has not been able to tell the difference since her property management company fitted them in her house. "You don't really feel like you are not getting the pressure," she says. "You are using a lot less and it's not like you even feel it." There is even room for savings when it comes to the country's dedication to gleaming cars: wash them a little less often and use a bucket, which cuts the amount of water used from 180 litres to just 10, says Withers.
When it comes to conserving energy Candice Miller, a teacher from South Africa, has a simple lesson for her Grade 6 girls at Emirates National School in Abu Dhabi: "If the red light's on, that's bad." After a field trip to the World Future Energy Summit this year, Miller's girls are not only carrying solar chargers for their PDAs, iPods and cameras, but also have taken to harassing their families at home.
"I've had a few parents come to me on parents' evening and tell me: 'The kids are irritating me because they keep turning off the air conditioning, the lights and the TV,'" she says. "And I say: 'Great.'" Matthew Plumbridge, an Australian who works in the green sector of the Abu Dhabi Department of Municipal Affairs and lives in Arabian Ranches in Dubai, uses maths and science to cut his family's energy use.
"I work out our energy consumption per square metre, per year, and benchmark that against the UN's building energy targets for the region," he says. For each of the past three years Plumbridge has reduced his family's consumption to between 90 and 100 kilowatt hours (KWh) per square metre, per year, significantly lower than the UN's target of 132 for residences. Air conditioning is usually left off downstairs at night. Plumbridge takes advantage of rising early, when the difference in temperature with the outside is least, to "pre-cool" the house. The family also "zones" its home. For example, Plumbridge's five-year-old daughter sleeps in a room kept at 26 degrees Celsius. If that's too warm they add a fan - which uses less energy than air conditioning.
To cool a garage that they have converted into a playroom, the family places a fan at a right angle to the doorway, drawing cooler air from inside the house out into the play space. They also use energy-efficient bulbs throughout the house and turn on only the lights they need. "When a bulb goes and we realise we don't need that light, we simply don't replace the bulb," says Plumbridge. "Our general mood lighting is standing lamps and they have super-efficient bulbs."
Another big issue in the UAE is over-consumption and waste. Elham Monavari, a co-founder of the Abu Dhabi chapter of the environmental awareness group Eco-Chicks, was struck by this after eating out with her husband. "I just remember leaving that table and it was full of food," she says. "And all the other tables were full of food. I thought: 'All of this has to come from somewhere and most of it is going to be wasted.' It's criminal really."
Raghwa, at EAD, estimates that 35-40 per cent of waste generated in Abu Dhabi is food. But, as she points out, so much more is involved. Most of the food in the UAE is imported, meaning that "buying local" is rarely an option. "Think about the water and energy that went into the food that you are eating," says Raghwa. "Everything is connected. When you are wasting food, you are wasting water, you are wasting energy." Not to mention the environmental cost of transporting it here.
Composting is one solution: new units available in the UAE are airtight, so they can be kept indoors, and use an anaerobic process that breaks food down faster. Perhaps the easiest way to tackle food waste is to experiment with taking and buying less. Sierra Black, a writer on frugality and sustainability at the American site Get Rich Slowly, recently outlined the "50 per cent rule", which helped her family cut their grocery rule and reduce waste to almost nothing. Buy half of everything you normally do, she says, and try using less too, right down to cutting your dollop of shampoo in half - then see what happens.
"My kids will eat a near infinite amount of fresh fruit, pretzels, and yogurt," she writes. "How much is enough? The only way to tell was to gradually buy less until we ran out and they complained." Recycling is a little more tricky, as it often involves physically hauling anything that has been collected and taking it to a depot. Many people are still just throwing everything away. Samer Kamal was cooking dinner with his mother in Sharjah back in 2006 when it dawned on him that something was not right.
"One bottle and can after another went into the garbage," he says. "I said: 'What is going on?' She said: 'There are no programmes available and this is how things are done here.'" Kamal, 35, grew up between the UAE and Canada, where reduce-reuse-recycle has been a mantra for years. It was inconceivable to him that valuable recyclables would regularly become rubbish destined for landfill in one of the countries he considers home.
"I said: 'That's unacceptable'." After that eureka moment over dinner with his mother, Kamal went on to launch Bee'ah, the Sharjah Environment Company. Progress has been slower in other emirates, and without door-to-door recycling, people are often left to drive their collections to depots, like Ms Sulieman. If this is not possible - for example, not everyone has a car and such trips can be tricky in a taxi or on a bus - there is still an alternative to doing nothing. Simran Sethi, an associate professor in journalism and communications at the University of Kansas, who is writing a book on the psychological barriers to environmental engagement for Harper Collins, suggests taking a practical approach.
"I would seek to recycle things that maintain their integrity through the recycling process," she says. That means choosing glass and aluminium over paper and plastic, which lose quality each time they go through the process. It also takes more energy to mine for the aluminium to make a new can than recycle one, and they can also be crushed for easier storage. The driving distance to the depot - and resulting carbon emissions - should also be considered, says Hugo Kimber, the chief executive of The Carbon Consultancy, based in the UK.
"If you are taking very little and driving a long way, it doesn't make sense, from a carbon perspective," he points out. He suggests crushing waste so it can be stored longer and more can be dropped off each time. Neighbours can also collaborate, and adopt a rotating system. Plastic water bottles are another area that desperately needs attention in the UAE. All it takes is a trip to the supermarket to notice families rolling out carts carrying cases of bottles - most of which will head straight to landfill. It's become part of the culture - "the very personal, the smallest size possible", says Kamal, from Bee'ah - but it can be changed. He suggests installing a water cooler instead. Sulieman carries a reusable bottle to work and refills it as as she needs.
Even the best efforts at creating a more responsible, sustainable home, however, can be negated by four-day mini-breaks and summers abroad. Aviation accounts for about five per cent of overall carbon emissions, meaning that many UAE residents have a lot to answer for. "In terms of individual carbon emission budgets, it's the biggest ticket item," says Kimber. To minimise the impact, he suggests combining business trips with pleasure. Flying direct, rather than a route of several legs, he adds, can save up to 28 per cent of emissions. Luggage is also a big factor: a five kilogram bag translates into 3.5 kilograms of emissions. "It's thinking through the importance of that trip and trying to take fewer of them," he says. And, certainly, adopting better practices in our everyday lives that will help to offset our trips. firstname.lastname@example.org
Change light bulbs If you used nothing but CFL (compact fluorescent) bulbs for your lifetime, you could save up to one-third of a tonne of greenhouses gases. Hang clothes Dry your laundry on a line or rack, rather than in a clothes dryer, which generates about 3kg of greenhouse gases per fully dried load. Or run the dryer only for 10-15 minutes, to "fluff up" the items before hanging them out. Red light off Switch off computer, stereo, TV and kitchen appliances at the end of the day. Left on standby they still consume 25 per cent of the energy they use when on. Pull the plug Unplug appliances when going away for a weekend or on holiday. Even when switched off, they consume a small amount of energy (known as a phantom load). Temperature check Set the air conditioning five degrees warmer before you go to sleep and when you go out for more than a couple of hours.
Go without the flow Don't leave the tap running while brushing your teeth. Displace it Put a brick or a sand-filled plastic water bottle in your toilet cistern. At about 8 litres per flush, toilets account for almost 30 per cent of domestic water use. Re-use it Place a bucket under the shower while you are waiting for the correct water temperature; you'll collect up to 10 litres of water which can be put to better use (on the garden or even for one flush of the toilet). Head case Change your shower head to a low-flow model (if you're renting, simply replace the original shower head when you leave). This will almost halve your water use. Load up Washing machines use about 65 litres of water per cycle; wash only when you have a full load. And use a cold wash; 90 per cent of the power used is for water heating, only 10 per cent to run the motor.
Downsize A medium-sized car with a petrol engine (1.6 to 2.4 litres) driven 10,000km per year generates 1.58 tonnes of greenhouse gases; an engine of 2.5 litres or more generates 2.53 tonnes. Why fly? A return flight from the UAE to London or Kuala Lumpur (about 11,000km) generates 1.21 tonnes of greenhouse gases; a 2-hour flight (approximately 3,400km) emits 0.45 tonnes.