Tackling waste in UAE construction

13 May 2020
In order to reduce and eliminate waste generated on construction projects,
the industry first needs to be made aware of the various forms of waste

This article is extracted from the report 'Removing Waste from UAE Construction'

The UAE has one of the highest waste generation rates in the world, with a significant portion of this coming from the construction sector. According to the Abu Dhabi State of Environment Report 2017, one third of the debris produced in the emirate comes from building sites.

This volume of waste being generated by projects may rise, as construction tries to keep up pace with the rising population and industrial growth unless measures are taken to reduce or eliminate waste.

The UAE Vision 2021 identifies six national priorities as key focus areas for government action under the National Agenda 2021.

One of these is sustainable environment. The agenda highlights the importance of infrastructure and aims for the UAE to be among the best in the world in the quality of airports, ports, road infrastructure, and electricity.

Ingrained nature

The construction industry is widely viewed as being entirely focused on project delivery and of having little interest in environmental protection. But there is little doubt that its activities have a major impact on the local ecosystem in the immediate vicinity of a project, as well as having a wider impact beyond the local area, not only during the construction phase, but also in the form of waste generated as a result of construction processes and the ultimate demolition of built structures.

“On the environmental side, increment in construction waste quantities depletes landfill spaces requiring to use more space,” says Mania Alabadla, lead sustainability engineer, Middle East & Africa, at Atkins. 

“Construction waste is harmful to the environment in general and increases pollution potential to the surrounding areas,” she says. “Research shows that construction waste increases pollutant emissions and global warming potential. Chemical waste that is not properly disposed can contaminate the soil and underground water. 

“From a financial perspective, there is a cost for surplus materials procured and used inefficiently, as well as cost associated with segregating activities on site, waste haulers and landfill.”

Entrenched attitudes in the industry make it difficult to drive change. Contractors tend to be rewarded for speed rather than their concern for the environmental impact of their work, while various project teams work in silos, with little or no communication. 

“It has to start with the client,” says Kez Taylor, CEO of Dubai-based contractor Alec. “The client needs to be clear on the scope of the project, before initiating the construction stage.”

Taylor highlights that designers tend to work independently, which often results in non-functional designs that work on paper but not in the real world.

“Construction should be a perfect sequence,” he says. “It should be almost like a production line, with one client brief, one design, one construction [process], one inspection and handover. If this sequence is disrupted, waste will be generated.”

Defining waste

Construction projects can generate large amounts of waste, in the form of physical, material waste, costs, as well as in non-tangible forms such as time and effort.

“Actions and processes that do not contribute to end result of a project in the most efficient manner to me constitutes as waste,” says Saeed al-Abbar, managing director of Dubai-based consultancy AESG. “From materials and resources, to time and costs. These can all be classified as waste.”

A survey was conducted by MEED to identify the different types of waste that the construction industry generates. Seven areas were broadly recognised, of which solid or material waste, and delays caused in project completion and delivery were identified as the biggest cause of waste in UAE construction sector.


“I think people recognise when there is material waste, because there’s a cost aspect to that,” says Ghassan Ziadat, vice president – major projects at McKinsey & Company. “However, when it comes to wastage in terms of productivity, and by that, I mean by productivity in terms of how much value you generate per hour on labour expense on project, then people are not very conscious of it.”

The tangible nature of solid construction waste makes it easier to keep track of how much and where this waste ends up. Studies conducted in 2018 by Ecomena, a non-profit environmental organisation, show that out of total solid wastes generated in the UAE, construction and demolition (C&D) wastes account for 70 per cent of the total weight of solid wastes. Dubai alone produces nearly 5,000 tonnes of C&D waste every day, which is about 70 per cent of the total solid waste generated every day.

However, wastage in the form of time overruns, preventable disputes and lost human effort are much tougher to account for.

“Disputes represent one of the largest value leakages from a project,” says Andrew Mackenzie, partner and head of international arbitration at Dubai-based law firm Baker McKenzie Habib al-Mulla. He adds that there may be situations where disputes could be necessary for a party to claim what is rightfully theirs. 

“It has to start with the client. The client needs to be clear on the scope of the project, before initiating the construction stage.”

- Kez Taylor, CEO, Alec

But in many instances, disputes are badly handled or ignored from the beginning and allowed to build up. Such cases cause large sums of money and time that could otherwise be spent on a project, to go down the drain.

“These disputes can consume all different types of resources within a company, from head office overhead to the time and effort spent by the management, claims teams, etc,” says Mackenzie. “All that resource does not get accounted for. Even where a party does win, it is very seldom able to recover the management time spent to run the case.” 

Another area of waste on projects is securing regulatory approvals and issuing permits, which can often take longer than the time taken to construct a project. Dubai has implemented steps that speed up the process of obtaining building permits to provide a ‘one stop shop’ for all stages. Such streamlining can help improve project delivery and generate savings that can be used for other purposes such as mitigating environmental effects.

15 per cent of the respondents of the MEED Mashreq Construction Industry survey said that human energy and productivity wastage on projects is also a critical issue in UAE construction. 

McKinsey Global Institute’s (MGI) 2017 report ‘Reinventing Construction’ focuses on labour productivity in its analysis, stating that “construction is a labour-intensive industry where labour costs account for between 30 and 50 per cent of the total cost of a construction project”. 

In the UAE, where the value of projects planned in the construction and transport sector is nearly $592bn, labour costs would account for between $178bn-$296bn.

MGI’s report further observes enormous cost and time overruns of construction projects, with their recent analysis finding average cost and time overruns relative to original budget and schedule at 70 percent and 61 percent, respectively. 

Another area of waste, though still up and coming, is data. A project’s lifecycle generates valuable data at every stage. But the fragmented nature of the industry makes it difficult to centralise and streamline it. Moreover, data captured through BIM models in the design or construction stage of a project is often not utilised in the operational or demolition stage of a project, rendering hours of data inputting and storage to waste.  

“I would say 99 per cent of buildings, around the world and in the UAE, don’t have proper records of what was built or what equipment is in it,” says Al-Abbar. “They might have the data but it might be in a box somewhere in a basement. 

“And the challenge it presents is that in this current real-estate climate, flexibility of space is essential. You need to constantly adapt to what’s happening in the market, which is not possible without knowing what is in your building.”

Quantifying waste

Conversations with industry players suggest that quantification of waste generated on a project could provide a starting point for change. 


“Waste quantification is all about good practice of site accounting and record-keeping,” says Ali al-Jassim, chairman of Emirates Green Building Council. “By estimating the quantity of construction waste generated, an entity can assess the potential for waste reduction.”

However, necessary information on the amount and type of waste generated on construction sites has been limited and fragmented

If adequate decisions are to be made on how construction wastes should be managed on and off the construction site, how they should be used, recycled or deposited, hard data on the amount, type, time and place of their generation is essential.

“[Quantification] is quite difficult,” says Al-Abbar, stating that “the industry is not there yet”. 

“The perception of how much something should cost and how long it should take are somewhat flawed because it shouldn’t three years to build a tower,” he justifies. “That’s how long it used to take in the 60s. We need to rethink this approach.

“You should have a benchmark of where you as a company need to be. Once you know how long a project should take and how much it should cost, then anything over and above that constitutes waste.”

Conversations with industry players suggest that quantification of waste generated on a project could provide a starting point for change

The quantification of waste on construction sites needs to start at the outset of a project. This requires a thorough analysis of the project, resources required and the risks involved if the project is not delivered on time.

“One way to quantify waste generated is by measuring productivity against initially set key performance indicators (KPIs),” says Ahmed el-Wakil, MEP project director at Dubai-based contracting firm ASGC. These KPIs can include performance, employee satisfaction and quality in terms of reworks, defects and number of inspections.

“Additionally, you need to compare the percentage and types of materials used at every stage, to the specifications provided in the initial tender,” says El-Wakil. “This helps you understand how inefficient the process is. Equipment usage should also be calculated similarly, per square metre of work done, to see how much more operational time and cost was required.”  

There ultimately needs to be greater transparency and communication among project parties, as well as the greater industry. Becoming aware of the waste on a project is a critical step, but reducing and eliminating this will require joint effort.

This report is produced under the MEED Mashreq Construction Partnership.To learn more about the report or the partnership, log on to: www.meedmashreqindustryinsight.com

A MEED Subscription...

Subscribe or upgrade your current MEED.com package to support your strategic planning with the MENA region’s best source of business information. Proceed to our online shop below to find out more about the features in each package.

Get Notifications