BEIRUT: The Lebanese trash crisis has been at the forefront of social concern for years. Recently, the government advocated for building incinerators in Medawar area in the heart of Beirut city to address the issue, while activists and environmentalists stood in the way of this deal and expressed their anger in a protest on the 29th of August.
Lebanon generates more than 2 million tons of municipal solid waste per year, of which more than half is of organic nature as highlighted by the Green MED initiative. “Each person generates approximately between 0.8 and 1.2 kg per day.” Almost 80 percent of the produced waste is openly dumped or disposed of in landfills contaminating acres of lands.
However, no practical solution has been adopted and implemented yet, leaving the country in distress, leading the public to deal with consequences of poor waste management such as soil, water, and air pollution, contaminations and the spread of viruses and diseases.
To allow a better understanding of waste management and to have a knowledgeable opinion on proposed solutions, this article highlights the application of the various options to address the topic and their pros and cons.
The hierarchy of waste management practices renders disposal and energy recovery as the least favored option and sets prevention and minimization as the most favored approach. What does this mean?
Disposal is the act of getting rid of the waste, through landfills, which is the option that is currently being practiced in Lebanon; or through incineration to reduce the volume of the disposed of trash, which is the proposed option to solve the crisis.
Incineration reduces the volume of waste to 10 percent its original footprint, thus reducing pressure on landfill sites. It also reduces the need for the transport of trash to landfills. However, incineration is an expensive process, as the costs of building the infrastructure, running the incineration plants and employing dedicated staff are substantial.
Moreover, incinerators are polluters as they generate toxic gases. Inefficient burning processes and incomplete combustion of organic compounds result in a large waste stream and the production of unwanted materials such as Carbon Monoxide (CO). As more than 50 percent of the waste produced in Lebanon is of organic nature, incineration doesn’t seem like an appropriate option with high risks of release of CO. Lastly, the incineration of waste discourages societies to recycle and to reduce waste generation.
Energy recovery, on the other hand, is when disposal sites and incineration plants are designed to capture methane emissions and use this gas as an energy source, generating electricity or heat for people living nearby. This option is costly and, if not well designed, can be highly toxic and hazardous. It is only recommended to convert non-recyclable materials into usable energy.
Recycling is one approach to waste management. It consists of the reprocessing of recyclable dumped materials into new products. This process considers waste as a valuable resource. It limits the pressure on the environment as it limits disposed waste and decreases the consumption of raw materials. In some cases, recycling is crucial; as for instance, plastic waste takes up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills.
According to Green MED initiative, more than 35 percent of Lebanon’s waste can be recycled (including plastic, glass, paper, and metal). Recycling can thus reduce disposed waste in the country by around 700,000 tons per year.
Recycling requires the separation and assortment of waste into material types. The drawbacks of recycling is that it consumes energy for the processing of waste. Moreover, the collection of separated waste requires more vehicles for the transportation of waste which increases the greenhouse gas emissions. The separation of waste at source is however important to waste management.
The re-use of waste is more advised than recycling, as it has financial and environmental benefits. Re-use processes include the remanufacturing of goods, deposit refund schemes, refill packs and closed loops schemes. Second-hand markets are one example of a re-use scheme.
Another example is buying a bottle of beverage, drinking the content and returning the bottle. To incentivize the re-use of bottles, some European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, refund around 20 cents for each plastic or glass bottle returned to the supermarket.
The re-use allows for savings in energy as well as raw materials, it decreases the needs and costs of disposal. So, it allows for financial savings for both businesses and consumers. Nonetheless, this process can’t always be a good solution; for instance, some products could be less energy efficient when used for a long time. Other items can be toxic if re-used. Re-usable items should also have a long-life cycle.
Waste prevention and minimization are considered the best options in terms of waste management. The fewer products used, the less trash produced. These processes boost the economy of industries and results in financial gains as it reduces the need for raw materials, limits the costs of the transportation of goods and can save labor. These processes require the rethinking of the production model at an industrial level. Some countries have therefore imposed new packaging regulations to increase the use of recyclables and biodegradable materials.
Waste prevention and minimization can and should also be applied at a household level. When purchasing goods, one should consider buying products that last longer, and should also buy the appropriate amounts and sizes. Also, one can fix broken items instead of throwing them away and buying new ones. This approach to waste management will reduce costs and disposal needs.
Some policies and frameworks can also incite waste prevention and minimization. As a case in point, some western countries have prohibited the giveaway of free plastic bags in shops. However, plastic bags are still available in stores for those who would like to pay extra to purchase them. This regulation reduces the pressure on the environment and littering by promoting and encouraging the re-use of plastic carrier bags and minimizing the total use of these bags.
A well-rounded waste management approach is the one that promotes the most favored options through the design of appropriate policies and frameworks. Waste management could start at a household level through rethinking consumption and buying products that last longer and that are recyclable. Industries should also reconsider the materials used for products and packaging.
Dealing with the trash crisis requires the collaboration of various stakeholders, including the government, policy makers, advisors, businesses, industries, environmental NGOs as well as households.
Rim Khamis graduated from the Lebanese American University with a bachelor of Architecture and accomplished her masters in Environmental and Energy Management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Her thesis was an emphasis on urban resilience and climate change adaptation in megacities using a comparative approach of Cairo, London and New York. Rim is currently undergoing her Ph.D. studies in Environmental and Energy Solutions at the University of Pau and Pays de L'Adour in France.
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