As Lebanon's trash crisis returns, EU says incinerators not the solution

As Lebanon's trash crisis returns, EU says incinerators not the solution
The European Union has said it does not support Beirut's incineration solutions to its growing garbage crisis, due in part to alleged corruption of Lebanese officials, writes Scott Preston.
6 min read
09 August, 2019
Uncollected rubbish piles up in the streets as Lebanon's waste crisis continues to spiral [Getty]
Since the beginning of Lebanon's garbage crisis in 2015, when the streets of the capital filled with trash, officials have struggled to agree on a national waste management strategy.

The problem began when the country's largest landfill could no longer process new waste. Due to the small size and dense geography of Lebanon, finding new landfills has proven problematic, forcing the country to look for more complex solutions. Four years later, the problem continues threatening to once again overfill the streets with uncollected trash.

Politicians recently moved forward with plans to construct incinerators to burn the trash, but this has drawn the ire of civil society groups. 

These groups are concerned with the impact on public safety given the country's poor record in oversight and governance necessary for the safe operation of incinerators or otherwise risk exacerbating pollution and health hazards.

These concerns grew among individuals key to the establishment of waste-to-energy facilities this summer, including religious leaders who have come to oppose the use of incinerators in Lebanon. 

Recently, in a setback to the Lebanese government's waste agenda, the European Union (EU) turned down an invitation to monitor the planned incinerator infrastructure for the country. 

According to local outlets Lebanon's Environment Minister Fadi Jreisati had asked the EU to inspect emissions from proposed incineration facilities.

In June, The Daily Star reported that Jreisati consulted with EU Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, and EU Ambassador to Lebanon, Christina Lassen, on the matter.

The European Union as of today does not support incineration solutions in Lebanon

But in an email to The New Arab, the EU Political Section Attache Elin Danielsson rejected the offer, stating, "The European Union as of today [27 June] does not support incineration solutions in Lebanon, not least due to the absence of a satisfactory regulatory and institutional framework. It is not the role of the European Union to oversee or regulate sectoral policies in third countries."

As plans for incinerators have crept forward, the EU also decided against bankrolling their construction, sending Lebanese officials in search of supplementary funding.

In an email to The New Arab another source from the EU delegation to Lebanon, who declined to be named, confirmed that the EU would not provide funding for planned incinerator projects.

"The European Union Delegation has never supported incineration solutions in Lebanon," writes the source. 

"There has been no earmarking to sectors for the moment by any international partner," the source continues. "Nonetheless, incinerators will not be a priority for European Union funding in the Capital Investment Plan."

The EU funding embargo also applies to incinerators that were proposed in the Capital Investment Plan, a national investment strategy that guided pledges during the CEDRE conference in Paris in April, 2018. 

Corruption Concerns

The source told The New Arab that one of the main reasons the EU has decided not to fund incinerator technology is tied to insufficient policy frameworks that would govern their operation in Lebanon. 

However, the lack of oversight mechanisms may not be the sole disqualifier for European Union funds. An action document for an EU capacity building programme, titled Towards a Decentralised Waste management Integrated Response (TaDWIR), - which includes waste-to-energy (WtE) activities - shows that the delegation acknowledged the possibility of corruption from Lebanese officials.

The document, cites a medium level of risk for "corruption associated with the construction of [waste] infrastructure."

In-depth: Beautifying Beirut - Making art out of garbage

However, the EU also mentions that WtE technology does not necessarily equate to incineration. "The term encompasses five technologies that generate energy, incineration, co-processing, anaerobic digestion, landfill gas, and pyrolysis/gasification."

While the EU Delegation will not be funding incinerators in Lebanon, individual member states and Europe-based companies will be free to consider their own investments. 

Such was the case with Ramboll, a Danish company that in April 2017 was contracted to prepare a tender for a possible incinerator in Beirut for the municipality's own waste plan. 

A new framework

A spokesperson at the ministry of environment told The New Arab that Minister Jreisati has submitted new short, medium- and long-term waste plans to the Council of Ministers, which is also exploring the use of incinerator technology.

"We contacted the EU. So far, we didn't get final approval, but we will definitely get an international agency or a European agency as the first layer of supervision to oversee the incinerator if the incinerator was approved by the Council of Ministers," said the spokesperson, who declined to be named. 

These plans are awaiting a vote in the council, which had been held up by debate over Lebanon's national budget until it was passed by parliament on 19 July.  

Incinerators, should they be approved, are said to be a backburner priority for the ministry of environment.

All the other options cannot work - not the incinerators, not the landfilling - if they don't sort at source

According to the employee the latest plans would establish 25 sanitary landfills from inactive quarries with two or three incinerators in undetermined locations. However, waste management strategies cannot move forward before municipal-level sorting programmes are implemented. 

"What is crucial for the current minister is the sorting at source," continues the spokesperson, "because all the other options cannot work - not the incinerators, not the landfilling - if they don't sort at source because if the incinerator will be implemented, we cannot burn waste that is not sorted.

"Same for the landfilling. We cannot put the waste in sanitary landfills if the waste is not sorted at source so it all depends on how the sorting at source will be implemented.

"We are pushing for the decentralisation so this helps us fight the corruption in the sector as we all know, and this will give incentives and power for the municipality."

Civil society groups have strongly opposed the construction of incinerators in Lebanon. Among the most outspoken critics is the Waste Management Coalition (WMC), an umbrella group that advocates for recycling and sustainable waste disposal.

Samar Khalil, who is a member of the WMC and an environmental chemical safety officer, told The New Arab that Lebanon's waste profile is better suited for recycling than for incineration.

Due to the high proportion of organic components in Lebanon's waste stream, which burns at low temperatures, more combustible materials would need to be segregated in order to sustain combustion.

A 2017 progress report by a government agency - known as the Council for Reconstruction and Development - shows that 65 percent of waste in the greater Beirut area is organic and 51 percent at the national level.

In the meantime, foul odours continue to seep into Lebanon's major cities, including the capital Beirut.

The government even hired consultants to determine the source of the smell. Suffice to say, the consultants' findings were no surprise.

Beirut's bad smell "is due to the mountains of garbage rotting in plain sight", concluded the environmental expert hired by the Lebanese government.

Scott Preston is a multimedia journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon, covering refugees and political topics in the Middle East. 

Follow him on Twitter: @ScottAPreston