22 October 2016Last updated

Features | Reportage

How green are you?

On the occasion of Earth Day next Friday, the UAE’s most well-known environmentalist Habiba Al Marashi presents Shiva Kumar Thekkepat with an everyday action plan to turn greener – and healthier

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat
15 Apr 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Getty Images

Habiba Al Marashi is quite worried about the stats as they stand now. ‘Did you know that for every kilometre you drive your car, you add more than 0.86kg of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases to the environment?’ asks the co-founder and chairperson of Emirates Environmental Group (EEG).

The celebrated environmentalist’s concern is fuelled by figures provided by Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in 2015 – Dubai’s vehicle density of 540 per 1,000 people is the highest in the region and one of the highest in the world. The number of vehicles in Dubai doubled from 740,000 in 2006 to 1.4 million in 2014, an average annual increase of 8.2 per cent – again, one of the highest in the world.

Habiba knows there’s no wishing global warming away. ‘The only solution to reduce emissions from cars is by using public transport or bicycles,’ she says.

For Earth Day next week, when events will be held across the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection, 
Habiba is hoping people and the government come together to bring about lifestyle changes that are not only eco-friendly, but healthy as well. ‘These are not just great alternatives to driving; they help save you money spent on fuel and to park your car in paid-parking zones.’


Hop on to the Metro on your journeys – a remarkably energy-efficient mode of transport that also keeps you active.

If you have to use your vehicle, carpooling is one way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Habiba estimates that if you join one other person on a 80km round trip, the monthly emissions drop by almost 10 per cent. There’s other benefits too. ‘Getting stuck in traffic during mornings can be stressful, but if you have some company to enjoy a morning chat while driving, it helps,’ she says. ‘Most cars can comfortably transport four people. So, sharing your car with a co-worker – after taking the required permissions from the RTA – will help you and the environment.’

According to Habiba, the most energy-efficient mode of travel is the train. ‘For every person who swaps a 32km round-trip commute by car with public transportation, the annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is a massive 2,177kg – equivalent of 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the average two-car household,’ she says.

Plus, it’s cool. According to the RTA, the average daily ridership of all public transport modes combined jumped to 1.5 million in 2015 compared to 1.4 million the previous year. RTA is planning to further increase ridership by 2020 by developing mega projects for public transportation.

Growing greenhouse emissions are not the only thing that worries Habiba. It’s also the amount of food being wasted, she says.

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries rank among the top nations in the world for food wastage. ‘In fact, the amount of global food waste produced each year is more than enough to feed the nearly 1 billion hungry people in the world,’ says Habiba.

Instead of filling empty stomachs, the wasted food usually ends up in landfills and eventually turns into a destructive greenhouse gas called methane. ‘What’s more, wasting food means wasting resources [such as water and energy] that went into the production of that food,’ says Habiba. ‘For example, every time you buy an apple and do not eat it, you are wasting 4.5 buckets of water that went into the growing of the fruit.’
The environmentalist offers some easy ways to be more careful about our consumption and reduce the amount of food waste we produce on a daily basis.


Shop and eat local: consuming foods produced closer to home saves on energy to transport foods – plus you eat fresher produce.

She suggests making a list before going grocery shopping. ‘This can prevent loading up carts with impulsive buys and items we might not use,’ Habiba says. ‘In practice, the idea is to plan the week’s meals in advance, determine what ingredients are required for each, and make a checklist. As long as you actually stick to the meal plan, there should not be much food left over!’

Likewise, understand expiry dates on food packages. ‘Expiration dates actually often refer to the product’s quality, not safety,’ she says. ‘And there is a difference between the ‘sell-by’ label [the deadline for retailers to sell the product] and ‘use-by’ [the date when the product starts to lose its quality and flavour.]

‘Consider techniques you can use to extend the shelf life of everything in your kitchen, such as maintaining the temperature of the fridge and freezer at the optimum level and unpacking and storing groceries as soon as you get home from the store.’

Habiba also suggests eating local to help ‘not just your bodies but also the environment’.

Eating local typically means consuming foods that were produced closer to home and becoming more cognisant of where our food comes from. There are several benefits of eating locally grown food. One of the main ones, according to Habiba, is the fact that the amount of energy it takes to transport food is much less when compared to foods that come from the other side of the world. ‘Also, because the time taken from farm to table is much less, the local food is fresher and uses less packaging. Eating locally also means supporting farmers who care about and protect the environment and wildlife. Plus, there’s evidence that eating foods produced locally may be more nutritious.’

She also suggests taking the extra step and learning to grow our own food. Planting and maintaining an organic vegetable garden in your yard or balcony provides many benefits, she says. ‘Growing a kitchen garden these days is much easier than it seems. And no store-bought fruit or veggie can match the taste of what comes from your own backyard. You’ll be sustaining yourself with food that didn’t require fossil fuels for transportation or expensive technology to grow. You’ll also have the peace of mind of knowing that pesticides weren’t used on your vegetables. Plus you’ll get some exercise!’
While on the subject of food, she stresses that meat production is another reason for the increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

‘Livestock industries generate 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions,’ says Habiba. 
‘In addition, vast swathes of forest land have been claimed for pastures and land for crops to feed animals.’

Going vegetarian can also be healthy, she suggests. ‘Research has found that vegetarians are less likely to be obese, have lower cholesterol levels, and are less likely to have heart disease caused by blocked arteries. If you’re considering the vegetarian route, or just want to cut back on meat, be sure to get enough protein through other sources like peanut butter, beans, soy foods, and eggs,’ she adds.

A point to keep in mind when shopping is the packaging. ‘When shopping, make it a habit to bring your own eco-bags; say no to plastic bags, which can end up in landfills or into the sea,’ says Habiba.

The junk that ends up in landfills is a matter of grave concern.

‘Did you know that the average office worker uses about 500 disposable cups per year?’ she asks. And all of these plastic or styrofoam cups end up in landfills where it may take decades to break down and when they do, they also release gases.

‘We can easily reduce the amount of waste we produce just by toting our own travel cup,’ she says.

Another easy way to be more eco-friendly is when ordering takeout at home: ask the restaurant not to include napkins, 
plastic cutlery or condiments with your order as these disposables add to the waste we generate.

Habiba is also against using bottled water.

‘Each year, 17 million barrels of oil are used in the production of disposable water bottles. Using reusable water bottles can easily help save this natural resource,’ says Habiba.

Being eco-friendly can extend to purchasing the right electronic appliances. ‘Look for the Energy certified products by Emirates Authority For Standardization and Metrology,’ advises Habiba. ‘Also, avoid buying appliances that are bigger than you need – like oversized air conditioners and refrigerators.’

Wherever possible, recycle products. Recycling saves energy, reduces raw material extraction and combats climate change.

There are several other measures that can be taken at home to stay green. 
‘Turning off the faucet while brushing or shaving, or the shower when lathering can save up to about 284 litres of water per week,’ says Habiba.

Wash your dishes efficiently. ‘If you wash dishes by hand, try the two-sink method: scrape every bit of food you can off the dish, then wash in a basin full of hot, soapy water, followed by a good rinse in a basin of cold, clean water,’ says Habiba.

‘If using a dishwasher ensure it is certified by Emirates Authority for Standardization and Metrology, which uses less than half as much energy as washing dishes by hand and saves nearly 19,000 litres of water a year.’

She also advises replacing older toilets with WaterSense-labelled high-efficiency models that use only a few litres per flush, or consider installing a dual flush model that can use even less.

Saving electricity too is as important. Setting your fridge temperature to between 35–38°F [1-3°C]; turning off lights when you leave a room; using curtains or blinds during summer to keep harsh sunlight out can all contribute to reducing power consumption.

‘Following these simple tips can help keep you – and the earth – healthy.’

Turn a new leaf

Ida Tillisch, director general of Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS-WWF), shares tips to green your routine

  • Don’t wash your car every day. When you do, use a bucket, not a hose.
  • Choose native plants if you have a garden as they need less water, plus thrive better in this climate.
  • Pop a water-saver in your toilet tank. A simple brick or filled bottle will do.
  • Using cold water in your washing machine can save up to 80 per cent of the energy required.
  • Turn off your computer, TV and other electronic devices at night.
  • Unplug chargers when not in use.
  • Set your air conditioner at 24°C.
  • When using a kettle, only boil as much water as you need.
  • Hang clothes out to dry. Traditional clothes dryers are energy-intensive.
By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Features Writer