Plant in the Desert

Converting Iraqis from consumers to producers through recycling.

Northern Iraq's first recycling firm is being established in the city of Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein. It is another step in a long line of waste handling improvements since Hussein was removed from power. Today, trash pick-up has improved in many areas, and recycling is taking hold in the heart of Salah ad Din province.

Qahtan Kareem, 38, is CEO of Alshefar Group and a native of Tikrit. He has been working with U.S. Forces since 2003 to help protect the environment and provide jobs for Iraqis. His business began with minimal resources: four workers and one vehicle. Today, the firm has grown to 433 employees and 260 vehicles, 100 of those being large hauling trucks.

Additionally, Kareem recently bought a $4 million recycling plant during a recent trip to Michigan. Plans are being made to transport the materials to Iraq, and the plant will be constructed in Tikrit. Once operational, the plant will provide a wide variety of services: It will sort, shred, melt, color and mold plastic waste into chairs. It will also sort and melt steel, iron, copper and glass into square ingots and glass slugs. These ingots and slugs will be taken to another location where they will be molded into products that will be used by Kareem's construction company.

While waiting for the recycling plant to arrive, Kareem hasn't wasted any time. Collected plastic recyclables are already being prepped for processing. All plastics go through a compactor that Kareem bought a few months ago. This compactor prepares the plastic waste for transport by sorting, crushing and compressing it into three-by-five-foot cubes. Currently, there are hundreds of these cubes waiting to be fed into the anticipated recycling plant.

Kareem also foresaw a need to recycle on Contingency Operating Base (COB) Speicher, the sprawling U.S. military base located approximately five miles north of Tikrit. A base-wide recycling program is now in full operation as thousands of water, Gatorade bottles, and plastic plates and utensils used by service members and contractors are collected and transported to Kareem's recycling operation.

Capt. Calvin Fisher, 27, assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, is the officer in charge of the Iraq-Based Industrial Zone (I-BIZ) and acts as the liaison between Kareem and U.S. Forces. Fisher stated that service members and contractors on COB Speicher have become more conscientious about how much plastic waste they generate. In fact, he's received so many requests for recycling bins that he's had to start a waiting list.

According to Fisher, the benefits of Kareem's plant are twofold: First, in the absence of recycling, many plastics (especially water bottles) in Iraq were typically burned, resulting in the release of toxins into the atmosphere. This plastic is now being recycled. Second, recycling will reduce the heaping mounds of trash still seen throughout Iraq and will empty landfills of unnecessary waste. This project has the potential to turn recycling into one of Iraq's leading industries.

Despite repeated threats, harassment and intimidation since 2003, Kareem has persisted. He continues to strive for a more environmentally friendly Iraq and is willing to set the example for others to follow. He is extremely thankful for the support of the U.S. Forces as they help make his vision a reality — turning Iraqis from consumers to producers through recycling.

Captain Heather Guck is a public affairs officer with the 135th MPAD located out of Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa. Guck is currently serving on COB Speicher in Northern Iraq with Task Force Marne, 3rd Infantry Division.

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