#YouStink: Recycling 'cornerstone' of solution to Lebanon garbage woes

#YouStink: Recycling 'cornerstone' of solution to Lebanon garbage woes
The ongoing garbage crisis has forced Lebanese to take to the streets, but pushing for a recycling-based solution, not calling for revolution, is the only way forward, argues Karim Traboulsi
8 min read
24 Aug, 2015
Environmentalists have been calling on the Lebanese to repurpose waste, including as art [JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty]
There are many different views on how to tackle Lebanon's one-month-old garbage crisis. Yet everyone agrees that the usual sweep-it-under-the-rug approach of the Lebanese government can no longer work.

Indeed, the current problem is a turning point for an issue that many believe has been 40 years in the making.

Lebanon's civil war (1975-1990) put a freeze on any progress on waste management in the country.

After the end of the civil war, due to a combination of factors - arguably led by incompetence and corruption - the Lebanese government failed to develop a modern solution to manage the country's waste, and resorted to burying it in landfills with little to no downstream processing.

The Lebanese government and the private contractor Sukleen, which was paid hundreds of millions of dollars to collect rubbish from Beirut and Mount Lebanon, acted little more than a "garbage taxi," in the words of Ziad Abi Chaker, one of Lebanon's leading environmental entrepreneurs.

Up to 80 percent of waste is buried, if we go with a 2014 report by the Regional Solid Waste Exchange of Information and Expertise network in Mashreq and Maghreb countries, and little of the remaining 20 percent is recycled or composted.

Lebanon waste in brief
Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Generation:
- 2.04 million tonnes per year (2013)
Final destination of MSW:
- Composted 15 %
- Recycled 8 %
- Landfilled 48 %
- Openly Dumped 29 %
Waste composition:
- Organic 52.5 %
- Paper/cardboard 16%
- Plastics 11.5 %
- Metal 5.5 %
- Glass 3.5 %
- Others 11 %
Cost of waste management:
- Collection and transportation: $10-$31/tonne

- Total cost including disposal: $20-$143/tonne

Source: SWEEPNet (2014)
It was only a matter of time for Lebanon, a tiny mountainous country, to run out of space for its waste.

This is exactly what precipitated the current, mother of all garbage crises, when the government shut down the overfilled landfill in Naahmeh, the main dumping ground for the capital's rubbish, under pressure from frustrated locals.

They had had enough with the smell and worrying reports of higher cancer rates near landfill sites.

The Lebanese government was stumped. Already in paralysis, and structurally incapable of thinking outside the box of traditional solutions, it could do little to resolve the problem as no other Lebanese region accepted to absorb the waste of the capital.

The Lebanese government scrambled to find an easy, quick-and-dirty solution. It even considered selling waste to Sweden, which incinerates garbage to produce hot water, but that quickly failed as Sweden requires rubbish to be sorted first.

The next-best solution was to try and bribe neglected Lebanese regions in the periphery to become the capital's dumping grounds, in return for development projects.

Protests and acid rain

So bad is the current crisis that experts have spoken to local television stations about the prospect of acid rain over Lebanon.

When emissions from uncollected garbage merge with oxygen and moisture, they warned, they could turn into acid that will combine with water droplets during the fast-approaching wet season.

The Lebanese government's mishandling of the issue eventually prompted protests by civil campaigners and activists, who have launched the #YouStink campaign.

The first few protests were small in scale but the continuation of the crisis and violent police reaction has rallied more and more Lebanese around the cause and against government incompetence in general.

YouStink protests over the weekend drew thousands, forcing the government to deploy hundreds of police.

The police clashed with the peaceful protesters, using water cannons and even tear gas. Hundreds were reportedly wounded, triggering a new political crisis and calls for the government to step down.

But protesters have been criticised for raising maximalist demands and expecting too much from a government that has no popular mandate and whose main function has been to prevent Lebanon from exploding under pressure from the Syrian conflict.

Some during the protests called for "revolution" against the system, but many believe the protests should have a more specific, achievable goal.

Predictably, some in the Lebanese left have accused YouStink of not being radical enough.

Citizen-led solutions

It would be simple to implement a sustainable, profitable and eco-friendly solution
Ziad Abi Chaker believes that not only there is a feasible solution to the garbage problem, but also that it would be simple to implement a sustainable, profitable and eco-friendly plan.

Recycling and composting, or as environmentalists put it the 3Rs - Recycle, Reuse, Reduce - would be at the heart of such a plan.

The solution starts at the level of individual citizens. If the Lebanese government is unrepresentative and works for the service of a corrupt political class as it is alleged, then it is only logical that ordinary people should take the initiative and not wait for their unelected rulers to act.

The simplest two things people can do is to sort their rubbish and reduce their consumption to produce less organic and solid waste.

Ziad Abi Chaker and a number of NGOs have been trying to raise awareness about this for some years now, and the latest crisis has helped their cause dramatically.

Back in January, Abi Chaker and activist Sobhiya Najjar launched a viral video campaign to persuade Lebanese households to sort organic and solid waste using separate black and blue bags.

Existing scavenger networks would then pick the blue bags and sort their contents further, and sell recyclable items to private-sector recycling businesses.

Abi Chaker told al-Araby al-Jadeed that existing recycling plants in Lebanon could already absorb a lot of solid waste, including glass and plastics. He says there are other types of waste that Lebanon's existing infrastructure cannot handle, such as green glass, but points out that the main challenge is organic waste.

But even this would not be too difficult for Lebanon to deal with. Abi Chaker stresses it would not take more than a few years for plants to be built, during which part of the waste could be safely stored for later processing.

Naturally, a comprehensive national waste management plan would improve sorting at home and not rely on scavengers, but rudimentary sorting is a good start to reduce the volume of waste, Abi Chaker argues.

Lebanese citizens could also do a lot more by way of reducing their consumption. Abi Chaker and NGOs advocating the 3Rs have been asking Lebanese people and restaurants, notorious for wasting food, to reduce organic waste by both consuming less and trying to compost when possible.

People can also reduce their solid waste by reusing and repurposing instead of disposing of items like glass or using reusable items instead of disposable ones.

Bypassing 'centralised corruption'

Part of the problem has been giving too much power to one company such as Sukleen to handle the waste of metropolitan Beirut and Mount Lebanon, where the bulk of Lebanon's population is concentrated.

Ziad Abi Chaker and others have instead proposed decentralising rubbish collection and downstream processing by working with local municipalities.

Municipalities, together with citizens and environmental NGOs, can handle the sorting and collection of waste and then sell it to private recycling businesses for some revenue that goes back into improving infrastructure.

Municipalities are more answerable to local constituencies, and comprehensive decentralisation has been a constant demand after the civil war as one way to achieve fairer and more balanced development and reduce corruption at the level of the central government.

Enter the state

The gargantuan task of waste management in Lebanon in a way that meets modern international standards cannot be handled by civil society and the private sector alone, though these must take the lead and waste management must have a solid grassroots bedrock.

Lebanon's Ministry of Environment and the Council for Development and Reconstrution, a quasi-state body, have already developed studies and supposedly drafted national waste management plants.

But these join similar plans for public transport, energy and water resource management plans on the forgotten shelves of Lebanese bureaucracy.

The Lebanese state's role, according go Ziad Abi Chaker, is primarily to develop tax incentives, draft legal frameworks and act as a facilitator for waste management stakeholders.

It is also hoped that the Lebanese state would help finance and build large recycling plants, especially to handle organic waste.

The problem here is that it is hard to expect politicians to greenlight a radical recycling-based approach to waste management.

Many of those in power and their direct associates allegedly have links to waste management businesses and see no direct benefit for their pockets to go the sustainable way.

In fact, politicians now seem to be taking advantage of the snowballing YouStink movement not to heed their citizens' demands, but to settle scores among themselves and promote half-baked solutions favouring their cronies.

Eyes on the prize

#YouStink must learn from the mistakes of previous protest movements in the country
The YouStink campaign offers some hope by way of putting public pressure on the government to change its usual approach.

But the campaign must learn from the mistakes of previous protest movements in the country, most recently the struggle of the Unions Coordination Committee (UCC) to end a 10-year-old freeze on pay rises amid a cost of living crisis, if it wants to avoid failure and losing public support.

The UCC protest movement expanded its goals so broadly that it eventually lost focus on its main objective.

Worryingly, some in YouStink are going on tangents about changing the entire system and replacing the entire political class. While few in Lebanon disagree with these demands, the struggle to resolve the garbage crisis in a sustainable way must remain focused on the issue at hand.

The protesters must sustain pressure on politicians collectively and refuse any solution they propose other than the recipe environmentalists have put forward: No dumping, no landfills and no incinerators.

The objective must be kept specific, technical and apolitical, at least until a nationwide recycling-based waste management system is up and running, where the citizens - not the state - take the lead.

Otherwise, the outcome will be more chaos and no solution to the country's garbage woes.

As the saying in Lebanon goes, we want to eat grapes, not kill the vineyard guard.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.