These guys recycle those A4 sheets you keep throwing away

By Nivriti Butalia

Feel bad about printed documents that lie around in office till someone bins them? A company is happy to come and collect those papers for free, recycle them, and even give you a report on your green impact

He’s the CEO of InfoFort — once a paper and document storage company, now into data management. Abed Shaheen is Lebanese. For the last 14 years, Dubai has been his home. In an interview with Khaleej Times, he talks about GreenBox, the initiative of the company to collect paper from offices and recycle it. GreenBox does this for free. Why? One line of reasoning, as he puts it, is that “Realising profits and benefiting from a society or city without giving back is an old, selfish mentality.”

Excerpts from an interview…

Hi Abed, your paper-recycling initiative sounds great. Why did you start it? Give us the story.

A few years ago, I was with our team in Egypt and I saw a plastic container that they had given one of their clients as part of a joint basic recycling initiative. So the origin of the GreenBox idea wasn’t really me. It was our team in Egypt… I came back to Dubai and started brainstorming with the team to see how we can scale up what our colleagues in Egypt started.

We came up with our first GreenBox concept made from 100% recyclable material instead of plastic. We ensured an ergonomic design, worked on a business model that would allow us to offer it for free, and most importantly, we introduced data to the physical box.

We didn’t want to just have a typical recycling box but to rather better integrate with what we do, i.e. data management. So, we borrowed the credit card statements concept that you receive from banks and set-up automated environmental statements that allow GreenBox users to visualise their paper consumption habits and recycling efforts. At the end of each month, users receive statements that show their impact with easily understood statistics that everybody can relate to.

How has it been received so far? Can you give us some instances of the success you’ve had?

We started working on this early 2014 but it wasn’t really until 2015 that we came up with the final go to market product. We first introduced it there and then in 2016 we started expanding it to other countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and recently Jordan. In 2017, we have plans to further expand within each country and into new ones too.

So far, 1000 GreenBoxes have been distributed and 120 331.39 kg of paper has been recycled. This has resulted in 2005 trees saved, 46127 gallons of oil saved, 1,131, 305 gallons of water saved and an offset of 2005 tc02e.

How many clients do you have and how much paper is collected every month?

Today we have about 550 offices (for 500 clients) using us (a total of about 1800 boxes) with 450 of these in the UAE. In the UAE we collected about 10,000 kg of waste paper! And 10,000kg would translate to about 2,000,000 sheets of A4 paper (assuming its 80gsm). Also to put this in perspective, a single A4 piece of paper takes about 125ml water and 7g of CO2 and 0.5g landfill waste to produce. Can you imagine the volumes (and impact) when we reach 5,000 or 10,000 offices?

Which of the cities that you’re present in is most enthusiastic about recycling? Can you share the top five recycling cities in the MENA region?

While we are in 25 cities, GreenBox is mostly distributed in the UAE, KSA, Egypt and Jordan. Companies in the UAE and KSA are so far the most receptive to partnering with us and placing GreenBox(s) in their offices. This is also affected by how early we started in a country and on the whole digitisation mindset. It is very clear that in the UAE there has been a huge awareness on the importance of digitisation and on how digital is the future. His Highness Sheikh Hamdan launched the Smart Dubai 2021 initiative which represents the next step in Dubai’s smart and sustainable development, and announced that in 2021, Dubai will celebrate the very last paper transaction in the emirate.

Has recycling always been important? Any early memories of being an eco-warrior?

I didn’t think of recycling when I was young. Those were different times, priorities were different. People along the way teach you — mentors, colleagues. You learn from them. And you access resources, and undisputable scientific evidence you cannot ignore. I would say that I learned along the way.

Today I have a responsibility to create impact. It comes with the leadership role. It would be a pity if CEOs and people who have access to resources and who can create great impact do nothing and just enjoy the status quo and relieve themselves from any higher purpose responsibilities.

What is your end goal? Why do you want to educate businesses on paper recycling benefits?

Well, the ultimate success of GreenBox will be when there won’t be any more paper to recycle! Our end goal is to change paper consumption habits and encourage a more digital world. GreenBox is a tool for us to educate, expose, change habits, spread awareness and have a positive impact on the environment.

InfoFort, as you know, was a paper and document storage company. While the business model has shifted to data management, automation, technology, it is shocking to see how much paper is still being stored and used. We hold billions of records and files that we also digitise in millions every day. We are in the 21st century and we still have documents flowing around in organisations while the world is getting ready to go to Mars. There is huge disconnect between what the world is technologically capable of today and how a lot of organisations and still depend on paper as a system of record and trust.

How unaware do you think people are with regards to the importance of recycling?

It differs from country to country. I think people in general are aware but most lack the means or the motivation or feel that in the short term they are not threatened by the status quo. This is why we need more and more scientific education at schools, regulation support, practical means for people to use, instilling active citizenship and a sense of responsibility rather than entitlement, and more and more awareness.

How is active citizenship linked to recycling? You mean for a feeling of ownership in residents? Active citizenship means that one, a company or individual, will have certain responsibilities to the society and the environment… that there is a sense of ownership and a commitment to be part of change and to be active in delivering good to the society one resides in. So recycling waste paper, also digitising and using less paper to start with… If I am living in the UAE and I enjoy all the benefits that the country gives me, then I have a duty to contribute to making it a better place. This should be taught at schools. In countries like the UK and Denmark, active citizenship education is compulsory and part of the curriculum.

What are your recycling habits? Are you someone who never buys plastic and reuses everything?

I wouldn’t say I reuse everything but I am conscious and I try to improve and find ways to be more impactful. For example, I  wouldn’t buy products from certain brands that pollute. A friend of mine who is an environmentalist changed how I buy products. Now I also use fewer plastic bags or avoid them all together. I recently changed my car to a 100% electric one.

How do you recycle? How does someone in Barsha or Oud Metha or Dubai Marina start?

GreenBox is currently setup to serve offices. All that a company needs to do is to approve the implementation of GreenBox in their organisation by signing up through our website or by email, and InfoFort will deliver and set up the boxes within 3 days. GreenBox is a 100 per cent free service. There is no catch.

How many offices have taken gotten on board with GreenBox? Can you name some?

Currently we have 600 offices across the Middle East who use our GreenBox services. Some of them include, Dubai Carbon, King Saud Medical City and GEMS Jumeriah College.

So where is the paper sent to get recycled?

We offer the complete solution. We collect the GreenBox contents using our fleet, and we actually combine this with our trips for other business to the same client or area. This helps us keep our internal costs low and also optimises our emissions. Once we collect the waste paper, we send it to our approved recycling partners in each country. So basically, we use our company’s presence, resources, client base, ability to invest and connected companies that want to do good with the recycling facilities that would not be able to reach those clients.

One statistic that might influence people to recycle? 

Each GreenBox will recycle 30kg of paper, Save ½ tree, Save 210 Gallons of water, Save 11.5 Gallons of oil and offset ½ tco2e.

Do you see the next generation being more savvy and proactive when it comes to the environment?

Indeed. Youngsters today are much more conscious of impact and sustainability. A big part of this is due to better education, exposure and access to resources. They are also much more technology savvy and enabled and won’t really understand why we need paper to start with. And demographics is destiny. They are the clients and decision makers of tomorrow. Once they enter the workforce you will see things changing faster and faster. Just like I haven’t seen a telex, someone who is 12 today will most likely never use a fax or photocopy machine.

Nivriti derives her virtuousness by avoiding plastic cutlery and using the reverse side of A4 sheets

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