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Fighting the big burn: Lebanon's waste dilemma

Lebanon’s trash  #StopTheBurning campaign last week after it was revealed that staff at the landfills had been instructed to burn the vast amounts of garbage leftover by the 2015 crisis.
A river of bin bags snakes down the road in Jdeideh, Beirut, at the height of the rubbish crisis in February 2016. Photo: Hasan Shaaban/Reuters

The trash that washes up on Lebanon’s beaches is a microcosm of Lebanese life – hummus containers, espresso cups, plastic water bottles. It is also a reflection of the country’s political ills – indifference to environmental and health issues, disregard for solving urgent problems and corruption.

The country – particularly the capital Beirut – has been consumed by a waste crisis that began in 2015, when residents near the overflowing Naameh landfill forced the government finally to shut it down, 12 years after its scheduled closure. A nine-month stand-off between Beirut’s waste collection company and the municipality left trash rotting in the streets. In a bid to subdue the outrage that led to one of the first mass mobilizations in a decade, the government quickly opened two new landfills, including one alongside an old site in Bourj Hammoud, on Beirut’s outskirts.

Lebanon’s trash  #StopTheBurning campaign last week after it was revealed that staff at the landfills had been instructed to burn the vast amounts of garbage leftover by the 2015 crisis.

But Beirut’s waste management problems are much older. During the 1975-90 wars, Bourj Hammoud was used as a dumping ground; the Lebanese Forces militia controlling the area accepted illegal shipments of toxic waste from Italy, some of which is believed to remain at the site. Successive governments have failed to implement functional national waste plans, instead relying on stopgap measures that eventually reach breaking point.

Things heat up

The latest quick-fix put forward for Beirut is an incinerator. Though seen by many as a fait accompli, it is also arousing strong opposition – from the not-in-my-backyarders to public health and environment advocates. Public meetings have become shouting matches with municipal officials who possess limited technical understanding of the proposed incinerator.

According to Sammy Kayed, development manager at the Nature Conservation Centre of the American University of Beirut (AUB), the project is ostensibly a waste-to-energy incinerator, but it is possible that the process may consume more energy than it produces. ‘Sixty per cent of Lebanon’s waste is organic. That’s not an efficient incineration process, so they may need to add fuel,’ he says.

Lebanon’s waste problem is not confined to household trash; it includes sewage, industrial, agricultural and medical waste. Kayed says just eight per cent of water that has run off from households and factories is treated before it is either open-dumped or pumped into the Mediterranean Sea. Properly maintained and operated, the facilities could treat more than 20 per cent of waste­water, he adds.

This kind of poor management, endemic across Lebanon’s institutions, causes many to question the sanity of building an incinerator in Beirut. Kayed says incinerator explosions are not uncommon even when they’re meticulously maintained, while there is no way to limit toxic emissions to zero. ‘I suspect it’s not going to be operated in a way that ensures it’s not a public health hazard,’ he says. A prospective location has not been confirmed, but in a densely populated city like Beirut, there is no safe space.

Environmental consultant Marwan El Solh believes the drivers of the waste crisis are largely systemic. ‘The two main issues are the infrastructure and the weak enforcement of environmental regulation,’ he says. ‘There are legal standards and laws that protect the environment but the enforcement mechanism is weak, resulting in little control or accountability.’

Lebanon's trash - never safe to burn

Joslin Kehdy, who founded the social enterprise Recycle Lebanon, doesn’t believe it is possible to make an incinerator safe, in Lebanon or elsewhere. While her initiative was born out of ‘the numbing despair’ of the 2015 garbage crisis, Kehdy is not despondent. She hopes that technical experts from the Waste Management Coalition, of which her organization is a member, can convince the Beirut municipality to drop its incinerator plans.

But the opponents are up against strong political forces. Kayed says there is no transparency around the incinerator plans, leading to widespread confusion and misinformation. Kehdy, meanwhile, argues the waste crisis has been contrived by elites who stand to profit from it twice.

Trash being dumped into the sea at Bourj Hammoud with the environment ministry’s blessing will create ‘reclaimed land’, which will be developed into exclusive – and illegal – real estate, much like the shadowy Zaitunay Bay in Downtown Beirut that’s part-owned by the Prime Minister’s family business. There’s also money to be made from an incinerator. Kehdy says the militia-turned-political-party Lebanese Forces, which profited from illegal toxic waste shipments during the war, is one of the parties leading the charge for the incinerator.

Growing pains

Kehdy argues that alternative solutions to the waste crisis exist within Lebanon’s traditional circular living culture. The ability and knowledge of reusing items is evident across the country, particularly in the villages.

‘The Lebanese are natural environmentalists, we’re connected to our nature and our food,’ she says. ‘In our orchards we plant the zinzlakht tree at the corner, which has a natural pesticide; it’s a natural way without Monsanto. It’s key to highlight this in a waste crisis, because we’re only talking about incinerators. I say there’s another option.’

‘Lebanon just faces an extreme degree of what the whole developing world faces regarding waste management,’ says Kayed. Kehdy is certain that scaled-up traditional practices can lead a global waste revolution. Btifruz (Sort), a pilot local-level collaboration between AUB and the Bar Elias municipality, now sees a ton of recyclables sorted at source every day, while a federation of 27 municipalities in the south of the country is seeking to adopt the scheme.

Kayed believes Lebanon is in the throes of ‘severe growing pains’, and while the situation certainly warrants concern, there is also space for optimism.

‘If you look longer term, we’ve been fighting for better social and environmental relations for quite a while, but what’s particularly positive is we’ve got this great set of ingredients to come up with good processes,’ he says. ‘There’s so much creativity in this country, we can find alternative ways of producing and consuming.’

Fiona Broom is a freelance journalist and environmental management student.

Corrections: The original article previously referred to the aforementioned social enterprise as 'Recycle Beirut'. Its proper name is 'Recycle Lebanon'.

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