Lebanese engineer and environmentalist finds innovative replacement for stolen manhole covers
For the last few months, Lebanese engineer and environmental activist Ziad Abichaker has been replacing missing manhole covers – for free – with new ones assembled from recycled plastic beams.
Many of Lebanon’s streets and roads have been left in a dangerous state following the theft of hundreds of manhole covers across the country.
Desperate citizens have been stealing the original cast iron plates to sell them for their scrap value, typically somewhere in the region of $100 USD – 2.4 million lira on the country’s black market exchange rate.
"Lebanon’s waste management, or lack thereof, has been a notorious problem for decades. This has resulted in multiple trash crises, caused by landfill sites having long exceeded their original capacities, as well as frequent clashes between the government and collection agencies over pay"
“A friend of mine who was a member of the municipal council in South Lebanon called me,” Abichaker told The New Arab. “She knows that I work in plastics [and] recycling, and she said they took 12 [manhole covers] from her village. [She asked if I could] help by replacing them with plastics. This is how it all started.”
“[The government is] not doing it,” he explained. “Should we wait until more people break their cars, or fall in and break their necks? We have the means of doing it, so we do it.”
Specialising in municipal solid waste, Abichaker – known to some as the ‘Garbage King of Beirut’ – and his team have been developing the technologies necessary to achieve zero waste going to the landfill in Lebanon, adhering to the belief that much of this waste is actually just an untapped resource waiting to be harnessed.
“This is a technology we have been working on for the last couple of years,” Abichaker explained, “which is to mix different types of single-use plastics, namely packaging of foods and snacks. It's an extrusion technology, and we build the machines locally.”
“They’re fast [to produce but] they're very energy-intensive, and now energy is exorbitantly priced,” he added.
Where the manhole covers have been stolen, they leave behind a frame which is built into the road surface. Abichaker’s team take measurements and then go back to their facility where they manufacture new covers to fit the dimensions.
The new plastic manhole covers have garnered much praise and interest on social media. As calls from other areas came flooding in, Abichaker and his team began experimenting with larger designs to replace covers taken from Lebanon’s motorways.
The process has been challenging. Initial designs – although suitable for lighter pedestrian and even car traffic – proved to be too weak to support heavier trucks and lorries, forcing the team to reconsider their previous approach and replace them, again for no cost.
“We started with a few models [but] some of them broke,” Abichaker said. “We started improving on the design to strengthen the cover.”
“If you have a cover with six beams, it breaks. If you add a seventh beam, then it handles the weight better,” he explained. “The problem with adding more beams is that the openings are not as large as before, and then the water [drainage] takes longer. This is a compromise that we had to do.”
Lebanon’s waste management, or lack thereof, has been a notorious problem for decades. This has resulted in multiple trash crises, caused by landfill sites having long exceeded their original capacities, as well as frequent clashes between the government and collection agencies regarding overpaying.
The country’s economic crisis has only exacerbated issues. Power and fuel prices have increased dramatically and, without decisive action from the Lebanese government, it falls to citizens and NGOs to find solutions.
“We are in a really bad situation with the waste,” said Abichaker. “There is no plan insight from the government. It's all talk.”
“What will end up happening is that each community is going to have to take care of its own waste management,” he continued. “They have got to take it into their own hands.”
Abichaker’s manhole cover project is mostly self-financed but, as demand has increased, additional funding was required. At present, the team receives about $300 (USD) on a monthly basis from their online Patreon supporters, allowing them to produce around six new covers per month.
His other ongoing projects include vertical farms, as a strategy for greater local food security, and helping municipalities to establish waste sorting programs with street recycling bins. Both of these other initiatives also make use of recycled single-use plastics, showing the versatility of the material if used correctly.
“Go try to tell someone in charge – any politician or any member of the municipality of Beirut – [that] we can take potato chip bags and make manhole covers out of them,” Abichaker said. “They will take you that this is crazy, but we proved it.”
Despite only being a relatively small group, the team have demonstrated repeatedly how Lebanon’s abundant waste can be used to a better purpose. The large scale implementation of their methods could revolutionise waste management in the country and provide solutions to serious societal issues, something that Abichaker is keen to emphasise.
“The one thing I really love about this is that we showed, yet again, that proper waste management can have social, economic and financial consequences that no one ever dreamt of before,” Abichaker explained.
“This has been my approach with the government for the last 20 years; just showing them what can be done,” he added. “They were not ready then. I hope that they are ready now. It's not rocket science.”
Robert McKelvey is a British freelance journalist and culture writer based in Lebanon.
Follow him on Twitter: @RCMcKelvey