How DGrade is addressing plastic waste in Dubai
Priya Wadhwa
SME Stories

How DGrade is addressing plastic waste in Dubai

When was the last time you drank bottled water?

The UAE has one of the highest consumption rates of bottled water in the world, standing at 450 billion bottles per year. That’s a lot in comparison to the world where people are moving to reusable bottles and cups.

We all know that plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade, with over 95 percent of plastic ever produced still existing on our planet, be it on land, oceans or even the ice at the Arctic Circle. And while cutting out plastic seems a straightforward solution, it isn’t. The cheap production and hygiene that plastic provides is difficult to replicate. So while it is true that we can reduce the consumption of unnecessary plastic, the more practical solution is to recycle the plastic waste we produce.

Dubai’s homegrown firm, DGrade is taking a lead in recycling PET plastic found in bottles, coffee cups and jars, to make high-quality yarn that can be used for making clothes. The demand for polyester fabrics, i.e. plastic-based fabrics, has risen considerably over the past decade, and is expected to grow even further.

SME 10X spoke to Emma Barber, Director of DGrade, to know more about how they’ve grown, their CSR initiatives that are changing behaviour, the challenges they face as well as their visions for the future. Check out our conversation below:

What was your inspiration behind setting up DGrade?

On arrival in Dubai in 2010 we saw the extent of plastic consumption in the region (one of the highest per capita in the world) and quickly realised that there was almost no recycling infrastructure in place to deal with this issue.

Kris Barber, our Founder, has over 30 years manufacturing experience in both conventional and recycled fabrics. Having worked with blue chip companies in the UK using recycled PET (we made a fully recycled polar fleece jacket for M&S and Bags for life for Tesco's) he decided to bring this model to the UAE and provide a sustainable manufacturing solution for clothing and make a positive environmental impact by diverting local plastic waste from landfill.

How has the journey been, and what are the major milestones you've achieved?

While Sustainability is now a popular and common term, 10 years ago no one was talking about 'sustainable' products, no one was too worried about their carbon footprint or too concerned about recycling in the region. It has not always been easy to convince organisations and individuals to change purchasing habits, become more sustainable by segregating and recycling, and to practice CSR.

However we have slowly become a 'go to' Company for Green Initiatives through our Simply Bottles Campaign, winning a number of awards and working with large corporations, schools, partnering with ministries, Government bodies and NGOs. Two of our major milestones include obtaining funding to set-up the recycling plant and being awarded as an official Expo 2020 licensee.

Do you have plans to increase collection of plastic from communities, hospitals or other entities, and liaise with the government on this? What challenges you are facing for these.

We are already working with a number of high profile Hotel Groups, Banks and Hospitals as well as many other businesses - we want to spread the word around UAE businesses, events and organisations that we need their plastic — it is a valuable resource and not a waste material. Our aim is to fully close the loop by encouraging these businesses to purchase the uniforms, workwear and corporate merchandise that they need (and are already buying) from recycled fibres in place of conventional materials which are made from resources that could be conserved using our process.

The main challenge is to change buying patterns and purchasing mind sets, companies must consider customer preferences, marketing opportunities and shareholders when making procurement decisions (not just buying the cheapest product on the market).

How do you manage the issue of microplastics while developing the yarn, and at the stage where factories manufacture clothes?

All types of fabric, whether synthetic or not, shed microfibres. However research shows that almost all micro-fibres from household washing machines are caught by the water treatment plants (sewage treatment plants), and so do not go into the oceans.

Most of the microfibres in the environment come from the manufacture of conventional clothing - by industrial washing and production. In addition, a huge amount of microfibre comes from the nylon fishing nets discarded in the oceans. Having said this, we do not ignore the issue - we ensure our polyester yarn is high quality, long staple-fibre yarn - which is proven to shed less than inferior quality yarn.

We also encourage consumers to take responsibility by using traps to collect microfibres in their washing machines, as well as using cooler temperatures to wash their clothes — all of which helps to prevent the build up of microfibers in the environment.

What restrictions do you have on the plastic that can be recycled?

Only PET plastic can be recycled into polyester fabrics. There are 7 different types of plastic, PET (type 1) is found in most food packaging - such as water bottles, iced-coffee cups, salad jars etc. Other types of plastic such as straws, milk bottles etc can be recycled into other plastic items but not into fabric. We process the bottles caps as well and sell these to manufacturers who produce other items from them.

As an SME, how can I support your business and what benefit do I receive?

We run a number of CSR Initiatives through our Simply Bottles campaign to help businesses achieve their CSR goals. These activities educate and motivate staff, increase segregation and recovery rates and close the loop by turning the plastic collected into tangible products. We design bespoke packages to meet budget requirements and can run one off events, workshops and seminars all the way through to annual programmes to hit agreed KPIs.

How has your business grown since you set it up?

We have grown from one full-time employee supported by contractors and consultants to a company that now employees 15 staff full time. In the coming year we plan to hire and additional 30 staff to support the factory. We have also moved from a small admin office to a 3,000 square foot factory.

Have you received any funding or support from investors to grow your business?

We have brought private equity investors onboard in order to grow the business. We have 4 partners in the business and will be looking for a second round of investment in 2020.