x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Crafty wood that needs no trees

An innovative firm in Dubai is pioneering a process that takes waste plastic and turns it into wood-like products.

Gerry Sherard demonstrates the strength of a bench made of
Gerry Sherard demonstrates the strength of a bench made of "eco-wood" while making his way through the warehouse of Eco Plastics Industries.

Jebel Ali Industrial Zone is not the first place you might expect to find environmentally friendly products. Yet deep in the heart of this zone one business is on a mission to do what it can to counter global warming and help protect the environment. Eco Plastics Industries, formed in 1995 by Abdulhamid Khoury, makes a product called Eco Wood from plastic waste. Planks of Eco Wood can be used for fencing, or to make buildings, pergolas or gazebos. It can be sawn, riveted and have nails driven into it like wood, yet is more durable than the natural material. It is resistant to moisture, termites and heat and requires no maintenance. It can also be recycled.

In the company's factory on the outskirts of Dubai, Eco Wood is made by first shredding plastic waste into a confetti-like substance, which is then heated in a process called "intensification" to form a granular substance, called "re-granulate". Next, colour is added to a special mix of plastics, then the plastic is melted and injected into moulds. The melted plastic is then cooled in moulds to form Eco Wood planks. Moulds can also be custom-made to make benches, picnic tables or bins.

Gerry Sherard, the business development manager for Eco Plastics Industries, is under no illusion as to the significant challenges to the environment posed by global warming: "The world is experiencing a huge strain on its resources; 1,000 tonnes of waste is produced per second, we are cutting areas the size of Switzerland in the rainforest, which in itself is causing desertification. This all leads to global warming."

On average each UAE resident produces about 1.75kg of household waste every day, and the biggest landfill site, Al Dhafra, takes 20,000 tonnes of waste per day. As Mr Sherard explains, "30 to 40 per cent of waste in a landfill is plastic waste. We take the negative of this to make a positive: Eco Wood." By using the product, Mr Sherard maintains, not only is waste that would have gone to landfill being put to good use, but as a wood substitute, fewer trees need to be felled and then shipped to the UAE, which means less environmental damage on a worldwide scale. Plastic will always be around, but as Mr Sherard points out, rather than "throw it into the sea, or clog up a landfill, we can use it to save millions of trees a year which can slow down global warming".

Some may argue that plastic is still plastic and that more natural alternatives should be found. After all, not all timber that is used in construction and manufacture is taken from virgin rainforests or otherwise contributes to global warming. Wood, including teak and other hardwoods, can be obtained from sustainable forests. Smartwood, a programme of the Rainforest Alliance, grants FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification to forests across the world that are managed responsibly, taking into account future and present social, economic and ecological needs. However, even if a building developer were to ensure that their hardwood was obtained from a sustainable source, Mr Sherard argues that one should take into account the environmental impact of shipping the wood to the UAE.

The plant at Eco Plastics Industries has the capacity to recycle up to 50 tonnes of plastic per day. At the moment it recycles eight tonnes, which is still more than double the three tonnes of plastic per day it recycled last year. At any one time, the company holds around 1,000 tonnes of plastic waste in its yard, from offcuts of cable casings, to plastic coat hangers and empty water bottles. The current global economic crisis has benefited Eco Plastic's business. "Nowadays, people's Number One concern is saving money," said Mr Sherard. "Our business has increased". He has found that contractors are now looking at cheaper alternatives to wood, particularly in respect of maintenance. "It costs millions to fit out and maintain a marina. Every five to 10 years the wood in the marina will need to be replaced, at huge expense." Eco Wood provides an attractive, maintenance-free alternative.

Mark Severn, the managing director of Emirates Seven, which manufactures marina installations, uses Eco Wood in his projects. "It's environmentally friendly, it won't rot and does everything wood does but better, and using waste." He added: "It's also 30 per cent cheaper for us than using wood and has the benefits that there is no maintenance required and there is no degradation of the actual equipment. It's perfect for both saltwater and freshwater environments." Eco Plastics Industries has also supplied Eco Wood to Madinat Jumeirah Hotel, Jebel Ali Hotel and Resort, Dubai Sailing Club and Al Murooj Rotana, to name but a few.

Eco Plastics Industries has seen a dramatic increase in enquiries following the introduction of the new Estidama programme, or the green law, announced last year by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, and the green buildings laws announced in Dubai, in an effort to make all new buildings in those emirates more environmentally friendly. According to Mr Sherard, "private companies' motivation is to save money, save the environment and comply with the green laws. Our enquiries have gone up 200 per cent from last year." However, the company still has to compete with other firms, including a large proportion from China, to obtain the plastic waste it needs to make its product. "Some waste we get free but the rest we buy from the municipality," explained Mr Sherard.

While the company is clearly making a great effort to reduce the amount of plastic waste, and provide a local alternative to wood lumber for the numerous construction products still continuing in the UAE, a more efficient national recycling system is still needed to enable the factory to recycle at full capacity. Abu Dhabi's new waste collection schemes, which are soon to be piloted in selected locations in the capital, will be a welcome step in the right direction. Mr Sherard is passionate about his product and its role in the battle against global warming. "We genuinely can make a difference," he said.