Lebanon’s garbage problem: No time to waste

From unending trash pile-ups to random dumping, the country’s inability to properly deal with its waste output has continuously made international headlines.
by Georgi Azar

7 August 2018 | 12:27

Source: by Annahar

  • by Georgi Azar
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 7 August 2018 | 12:27

An incinerator pictured from the river Seine bank at sunrise, on January 6, 2017 in Paris. (AFP Photo/ LIONEL)

BEIRUT: The present waste crisis, which can be traced back to the start of the civil war, is a distinctly Lebanese fable at this point. 

From unending trash pile-ups to random dumping, the country’s inability to properly deal with its waste output has continuously made international headlines. 

“Disposing of the garbage at the height of the 2015 trash crisis should not have taken more than two months,” Rashed Sarkis, member of the ministerial committee tasked with monitoring the sustainable waste management plan, told Annahar. 

Faced with increasing garbage production, and mounting public pressure, authorities have resorted to a bevy of bandage solutions ever since protesters took to the streets under the smoldering sun in June 2015.

The failure to implement a comprehensive framework for effective waste management has led to the creation of ad hoc, unprotected dumps across the coastline leaching into the sea, with the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute decrying high concentrations of chemical and bacterial contamination, including large levels of mercury, copper, lead, and cadmium. 

“Our crisis is due to mismanagement and political infighting, and not stemming from a technical standpoint,” Samar Khalil, an environmental management specialist and member of the waste management coalition, told Annahar. 

In 2006 she says, a $400 million plan was proposed to adopt sorting and composting facilities in all districts with landfills at the governorate level but was deemed too expensive by authorities who blamed the lack of funding.

Yet four years later, in 2010, authorities first touted the implementation of waste to energy plants, i.e incinerators, costing a total of $1.2 billion for the whole project, Khalil explains.

For decades, Lebanon has been producing more waste than it could manage, with a 2015 study showing an estimated 1550 tons generated per day in Beirut and Mount Lebanon alone. 

Years before the waste crisis spilled into the streets in 2015, officials untenably relied on the Naameh landfill in southern Beirut which opened in 1997 with a seven-year time span and a two million ton quota. 

18 years and four extensions later, and over 15 million tons of garbage, it was finally shut down resulting in trash pile-ups across middle-class to upper-class neighborhoods and suburbs, which culminated in duly yet short-lived protests demanding accountability. 

Despite the European Union’s efforts to upgrade solid waste management capacities nationwide by constructing six treatment plants for solid waste and eight sanitary landfills, as well as Germany’s $1.8 million for quality waste collection equipment for 25 municipalities, Lebanon still finds itself unable to deal with an ever-widening and increasingly dangerous supply of trash.

Fast forward three years, and the proposed solution making rounds again is a giant incinerator in the capital Beirut, touted by officials as a win-win situation to deal with both the trash crisis and the lackluster energy deficit. 

“None of the areas in Lebanon will be safe from these incinerators, this is a massive killing process affecting everyone living here,”  Dr. Najat Saliba, another member of the waste management coalition, told Annahar. 

An incinerator model designed by Quality Control Inspector and activist Raja Noujaim. (HO)

Incineration is currently being prophesied as the ultimate solution to the country’s tug and pull with its own waste, despite harsh concerns from health and environmental authorities, and residents. 

Although high-temperature incineration of industrial and household waste to generate electricity is common in Scandinavia and Germany - yet becoming increasingly phased out across Europe - it simply isn’t the right fit for Lebanon for a number of reasons, experts say. 

The reality, says Khalil, is that Lebanon simply doesn’t meet the requisite requirements for burning its trash, be it due to its composition, or simply the necessary governance to do it safely in accordance with international norms.

When taking into account the fact that not all trash can be burned, i.g metals, glass and other inert materials, and that 63 percent of Beirut’s waste is organic, resorting to incineration becomes all the more nonsensical. 

“Organic waste is of low calorific value, it is not combustible and you can’t burn it to create energy,” Khalil says. 

To create energy by burning waste, the calorific value of waste should range between 8 to 9 Megajoules per Kilogram, whereas Lebanon’s waste contains less than 6 Megajoules given its excessive watery composition; it lowers the temperature in the furnace and significantly increases the levels of dangerous exhausts and air pollutants. 

To sustain combustion, organic waste must be either dried, which entails excessive and unsustainable spending, or burned with valuable recyclables, including plastic and paper. 

Failing to incinerate the proper materials will lead to the production of excess volumes of toxic fluid and ash which will be released into the atmosphere and inhaled by residents within a radius of four kilometers, namely in Ashrafieh, Bourj Hammoud, Hazmieh, and Baabda. 

Further complicating things is the dysfunction at the municipality level, paving the way for residential waste to be lumped together with its hazardous industrial and medical counterparts, leading to the emission of both toxic “bottom and fly ash,” the latter which contains large amounts of heavy metals and dioxins with improper disposal causing serious environmental and human health hazards.

“Fly ash needs to be disposed of in specialized landfills which are currently nonexistent,” Khalil says, stressing that exporting it is unlikely given the framework set by the Basel convention. 

“It is not possible to export waste for final disposal,” she says.

Bottom ash meanwhile, part of the non-combustible residue of combustion in a furnace or incinerator, must be properly treated before possibly being used for the production of asphalt or cement.

Add to that the lack of governmental framework and independent authority capable of monitoring such a wide-scale project, and Lebanon is gearing up toward an-all out environmental disaster. 

“The legal framework is somewhat there, but the main problem lies in actually enforcing the law,” Khalil told Annahar. 

The environmental track record of the public sector in managing and maintaining similar services leaves much to be desired, from “power production to wastewater management.”

“How can we trust this system,” she asks. 

The controversial plan has also brought the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) into the fold, who has been criticized by environmentalists for backing the plan. 

According to Khalil, the UNDP first proposed the idea in 2010 and has been pushing for the adoption ever since, with Suleiman Jaber, a Beirut Municipality representative, explicitly calling the agency a “provider” of the waste management solution last week during an interview on local broadcasting channel OTV. 

But both publicly and privately, the UNDP has attempted to distance itself from the squabble, assertions that Khalil and other environmentalists have taken with a grain of salt. 

“We’ve held talks with UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Philippe Lazzarini and UNDP country director Celine Moyroud who maintained that they are not policymakers and are merely advising the government, but this is not true,” she says. 

Meanwhile, Saliba decried the UNDP’s lack of effort in “taking a stand against the incinerators, while failing to convince the government of the need to establish the necessary infrastructure to manage the solid waste within a green environmental framework.”

Last week, the plan to push ahead with the incinerator, expected to be built in Mdawwar near Bourj Hammoud, was momentarily delayed after members of Sabaa blocked the entrance to Beirut’s municipality. 

Officials were scheduled to move forward and sign the tender terms which stipulate the criteria Beirut must meet before incinerators can be established, ushering in bids from international companies that wish to undertake the project.

Sabaa member and MP Paula Yacoubian led the charge against the incinerator, holding a press conference during which she highlighted the many dangers it poses on the health and wellbeing of residents. 

“Our waste is not suitable for combustion, and it will lead to further air pollution and the release of toxic materials,” she said. 

The independent political party also called for a public debate between members of the municipality and opponents of the plan to raise awareness on the issue, before a referendum or opinion poll is held to permit Beirut’s constituency to vote on the proposal. 

At height of the trash crisis of 2015, a Lebanese man throws more trash on a pile of rubbish covered with white pesticide in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra in Beirut on July 23. (Bilal Hussein/AP)

The solution, experts say, lies with citizens sorting at the source, with some form of administrative decentralization and an emphasis on the circular economy. 

Waste minimization, cooperation between the industrial sector to reduce waste, and a shift in the Lebanese psyche are of the utmost importance, experts say. 

Despite Lebanon’s waste problem being multi-faceted, progress can be made through active sorting to increase the quality of possible compost derived, and recycling in order to decrease the amount of unusable waste. 

Separating at the household level organic materials from recyclables will maximize the value-producing aspects of waste (recycling and composting) while also significantly decreasing the toxic side-effects of haphazard disposal, experts argue. 

The touted incinerator is expected to carry an initial $250,000 million price tag while taking in between 750 and 1200 tons per day, bringing the cost per ton to around $200.

“If Mr. Itani [Mayor of Beirut Jamal Itani] is ignorant of the dangers of establishing an incinerator, we, fortunately, are not,” Raja Njeim, a quality control inspector and activist, told Annahar. 

Zeina Nasser contributed to this report. 

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