Diaries of a garbage bag

Lebanon's waste & water problem

Ranine Awwad

Our garbage may be taken out of sight, but it never disappears. Whether it is recycled, landfilled, burned or tipped into the sea, it endures in one form or another—a witness to past human activity. Even prehistoric times are known to us primarily through such traces: long before our forebears could write, they left waste behind, offering clues as to their diet, habitat and tool-making. To this day, our garbage bag is profoundly revealing, sometimes bursting at the seams with secrets and social commentary. In other words, it tells our story.

Nowhere is garbage more expressive than in Lebanon: a tiny country with an ever-expanding and increasingly dangerous supply of trash. Lebanon’s waste tells the story of a dense, consumerist society that has failed, for decades, to set up a functioning waste management system, as authorities dither from temporary fixes to partial solutions, from emergency schemes to unimplemented masterplans.

The present crisis has deep roots. Even before communal violence swept Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, waste management infrastructure was minimal. Municipalities outside the capital dealt with the problem haphazardly, in dumpsites regularly set ablaze. Beirut mostly resorted to crude incineration in the suburb of Amrousieh, at a plant already deemed unsatisfactory, until it established a sorting and composting center in another suburb, Karantina, in 1972. In 1974 the government passed groundbreaking legislation that prohibited tipping waste on the coastline; stockpiling trash anywhere but in dedicated areas; and releasing effluents into the water table, the rivers and the sea. But the 1975 outbreak of civil war upended efforts to establish order; the garbage bag was left to fend for itself, inaugurating a pattern of ad hoc landfills and endemic spillage that lasts to this day.

Nowhere is garbage more expressive than in Lebanon

Take a classic scene, in a village high up in Mount-Lebanon, visited in 2017. The village’s stream is literally dammed with bulging trash bags, sitting beneath a sign that enjoins: “Do not throw trash here.” Waste containers, just down the road, are ignored by residents. A landowner in the area admits he opposes moving the bins closer to his building, fearing it would “degrade the landscape.” Another neighbor wishfully suggests that “the municipality certainly will clean up soon.” An elderly woman proudly shares her personal hack: “I don’t tie the bags—that way the contents get washed away faster.” Meanwhile, an old chair stands resolutely in the middle of the stream, wondering how the trickle at its feet could do more than tickle.

Residents of Beirut may be tempted to pin such practices on rural backwardness, but the same spirit pervades big cities: as long as garbage is removed from the streets, few question what exactly is done with it. As such, the 2015 closure of the Naameh landfill caused trash to accumulate in upper- and middle-class neighborhoods of the capital, prompting short-lived but intense demonstrations that petered out as soon as the government spirited the mess away under remote bridges and in surrounding valleys. During summer 2017, mountains of untreated garbage just north of Beirut—in the suburb of Burj Hammoud—were bulldozed into the Mediterranean, washing up all along the shoreline without prompting so much as a protest. Indeed, beach-goers largely managed to ignore the floating litter, finding various ways to explain how their spot was cleaner than others: in the South, they invoked coastal currents, in the North submarine springs, and elsewhere perfunctory water quality tests, in an absurd cartography of denial.

The prevailing Lebanese attitude toward the garbage crisis is a familiar one: resigned to corrupt and incompetent leadership, communities tend to block out the issue altogether—unless it becomes so disruptive as to impose itself on them. The difference is that, relative to other facets of poor governance, defective waste management is uniquely cumulative and toxic. It affects the country’s soil, water cycles, and agricultural output; it will, inevitably, resurface time and time again, with increasing costs at each new stage. Indeed, the garbage bag doesn’t merely document the past: it writes the future. For those willing to listen, it is clear that the time to act is now.

Piling up

Lebanon has for decades been producing waste at a rate that far outpaces its ability to deal with it. Reliable figures are elusive, but existing data suggest a dramatic upward trend. On the eve of the civil war, Beirut generated daily approximately 600-700 tons of “solid waste” –that is, the spectrum of non-sewage refuse ranging from banana peels and cardboard boxes to discarded industrial machinery. By 2015, that figure had more than doubled to an estimated 1,550. The steady rise in garbage production is conveyed by various technical reports addressing conditions in Beirut and Mount Lebanon—two adjacent governorates whose waste management has been jointly administered, since 1992, by the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR, a central government body established in 1977 to execute infrastructure projects). The region’s garbage accounts for more than half of Lebanon’s total solid waste.

This steady rise in garbage production would not necessarily be a problem, but for the fact that Lebanese authorities have consistently failed to put forward infrastructural and administrative solutions to keep pace. This failure is perhaps best exemplified by the history of the Naameh landfill: opened in 1997, Naameh was designed to last for 7 years and absorb a maximum of 2 million tons of solid waste. By 2015, after four extensions to its lifespan, the site had reached 18 years old and 15 million tons of garbage, finally forcing its closure. Originally conceptualised as one component of a sophisticated scheme comprising manual and mechanical sorting, organic material separation, composting, baling and wrapping, it ended up being used as a gigantic, largely unsorted dump taking in 85% of all solid waste produced in Beirut and Mount Lebanon.

Importantly, this decades-old mismatch between multiplying garbage and available infrastructure sheds light on a pervasive fallacy when it comes to waste management in Lebanon—namely, that more than one million Syrian refugees deserve most of the blame for the current crisis. In one illustrative exchange, a municipal councilman in southern Lebanon claimed that “our greatest challenge on the environmental and sanitary levels comes from Syrians we hosted in our village.”

In fairness, displacement flows have massively impacted certain areas of the country, with some towns and villages—many of them already underserved—seeing their populations more than double. Yet existing evidence suggests the overall impact is exaggerated: a 2014 study by the European Union (EU), the Ministry of Environment and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) put the volume of additional waste related to refugees at less than 900 tons per day—or 15% of the pre-2011 total. While this figure is significant—and has likely increased since 2014—it fails to explain the scope of today’s crisis, which indeed was simmering long before 2011.

Syrians have also had positive effects

It bears noting, moreover, that Syrians have also had positive effects on waste management—prompting significant investments on the part of Lebanon’s international partners, in areas long neglected by the central government. The EU alone committed, between 2014 and 2015, 35 million euros to upgrade solid waste management capacities around the country, through construction of six treatment plants for solid waste and eight sanitary landfills, and provision of bins, trucks and compactors. The program’s stated ambition is to serve, by 2020, 2.9 million predominantly Lebanese beneficiaries. Other foreign parties have also chipped in: Germany in 2016 launched a 1.8 million dollar project providing quality waste collection equipment to 25 municipalities; Canada funded a “sorting at the source” campaign; and so on.

By contrast to this recent flurry of international activity, the Lebanese state has long failed to establish a framework for effective waste management. While Naameh is the most glaring example of this trend, much of Lebanon’s waste is in fact dealt with through still less orderly avenues—namely ad hoc, unprotected dumps. “It’s quite simple,” sighed an EU official, “we’ve counted around 800 informal dumpsites around the country, which means that you have almost one trash pile for each of Lebanon’s 1037 municipalities.” More formal landfills, which serve several localities, tend to ultimately form a larger version of the same problem, if only because they rarely are sanitary—i.e. fitted with layers of impermeable lining, drains and a treatment facility for the poisonous liquid outflow.

While solid waste tends to generate the most public attention, Lebanon’s water treatment infrastructure is in similarly dire condition. A European expert on water treatment pointed out that “parts of the sewerage grid in Beirut hark back to the 1930s. In areas where it hasn’t been upgraded, pipes can literally explode from the pressure caused by high-rise buildings they were not designed for.” Progress certainly has been made, but in fits and starts, and with disappointing outcomes. Of the 11 waste water treatment plants built since the civil war, two operate below capacity, and seven not at all, because they simply haven’t been connected to collection networks.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, while policymaking remains stagnant, Lebanese society itself has been rapidly evolving. On one hand, Lebanese simply are consuming more, and therefore generating ever greater volumes of waste. According to the Central Administration of Statistics, Lebanese households bought foodstuffs, textiles, furniture, appliances and other manufactured goods—the vast majority of which are imported—for a total of 12 billion Lebanese pounds in 1997; in 2010 the amount had reached 18 billion (in constant 1997 prices). The garbage bag’s story is one of relentless accumulation, where trash is hardly ever transformed, reused or neutralised, but simply piled up.

The garbage bag’s story is one of relentless accumulation

Additionally, as Lebanese society has generated increasing volumes of waste, the types of waste generated throughout the country have evolved as well. “Our grandparents didn’t produce much garbage,” reminisced a landfill owner. “The bulk of their waste was organic, and much of it would be fed to chicken or cattle.” Traditionally, recyclable waste was collected, even in remote villages, by hawkers who would shout “metal for sale, batteries for sale,” and would also take away broken house appliances. Such ad hoc solutions have become far less workable as the overall volume of waste—and especially inorganic waste—has climbed.

In 2015, a Lebanese researcher estimated that, countrywide, only 9% of total waste was recycled and 10% composted—despite more than half of the country’s waste being organic and thus compostable. And although small, scattered recycling and composting plants do exist, they are for now too marginal to make much of a dent. One poignant illustration of the current balance between recycling and haphazard dumping is a scene in Akkar, in northern Lebanon, where a herd of cows roots around for food in a large, unconfined dump. The site’s proprietor boasted: “we sell whatever has any value, and cattle help eliminate the rest.”

Poison

In Lebanon and elsewhere, public attention to poorly managed garbage tends to focus on what’s at the surface: growing quantities of unsightly, inconvenient waste and the foul smells it sends floating through entire neighborhoods. Ultimately, however, the garbage bag’s most disturbing implications are harder to discern: they are in the soil and the water, in the air quality, in chemical substances from the waste itself or produced when diverse forms of refuse intermingle in open dumps. While these dynamics are less viscerally disturbing than the sight or smell of massive accumulations of garbage, they are more pernicious in the long-term.

One straightforward and widely relevant example of the lethal knock-on effects of haphazard waste management relates to the substance known as leachate, or “black water”: a toxic liquid that emerges as rain passes through solid waste in dumps and, most importantly, as organic waste decomposes. “Organic waste” is misleading in that respect. Vegetable peels or excrements enjoy the “eco-friendly” halo attached to compost and manure, when in fact they often become serious sources of contamination. In the absence of sorting, they are bundled together with other refuse, such as cardboard, plastic wrappings, batteries and the like. Stuffed in bags or bails piling up in dumpsites and landfills, this mix undergoes complex chemical reactions triggered by the moisture it encloses.

If uncontained, leachate seeps into soil, water tables and other adjacent bodies of water, with contaminating effects that may spread far beyond the dump’s physical territory. The environmental and health risks posed by leachate are the reasons why solid waste should, in a functioning system, be stacked only in sanitary landfills. In Lebanon, only two such landfills exist—Naameh and Zahle—and the first is too overloaded to function properly.

A particularly dramatic (and bizarre) case study in the dangers of leachate emerged in Costa Brava, a facility established in 2015 in a southern suburb of Beirut as a temporary stopgap following Naameh’s closure. With the site unequipped to contain the toxic fallout from solid waste, leachate from Costa Brava poured almost directly into the Mediterranean, after minimal processing at the Al-Ghadir plant. The leachate enticed hungry fish, whose growing numbers in turn attracted swarms of seagulls; these endangered aircraft landing at the nearby international airport, and catalyzed the dump’s closure in early 2017. In another example, numerous villages in Lebanon’s mountainous regions rely on improvised dumpsites that sit uphill of their water sources—despite obvious risks of contamination, and the unfortunate irony that many Lebanese associate these areas with snowfall, natural springs, and a general sense of purity. The widespread practice of burning garbage compounds the danger, by leaving toxic ashes to mix in.

Just as liquid runoff from solid waste is cause for concern, Lebanon likewise has serious problems with waste water management. Though two thirds of all households are now reportedly connected to some form of sewerage system—compared to one third in 1996—only 8% of waste water undergoes any form of treatment; the rest winds up in the ground, in rivers, or in the Mediterranean through one of 53 coastal outfalls. Thus 494 million cubic meters of raw sewage were released into the environment in 2015–compared to 227 million in 2000. Worse, what is processed leaves a solid deposit—a thick, highly toxic mud known as “sludge,” which in Lebanon generally makes its way back into the environment for lack of any capacity to neutralize it. A European expert sighed: “In a sense I’m glad only a small fraction is treated, because you’re much better off pouring sewage into the nature than sludge.”

The country’s waterways serve in lieu of functioning sewage lines

The country’s waterways generally serve in lieu of functioning sewage lines, receiving all sorts of liquid—and solid—waste. Every permanent river in Lebanon has been found to be polluted with fecal coliform bacteria or, in other words, human excrement. The largest one, the Litani, collects each year an estimated 4 million cubic meters of industrial waste water produced by 294 factories, along with 63 million cubic meters of domestic waste water and 237,250 tons of solid waste. Add unknown volumes of irrigation water loaded with cheap, non-biodegradable fertilizers and pesticides, and whole carcasses discharged by local slaughterhouses. Walking along the coastline near the river’s mouth, a careful eye will see the occasional bone protruding.

At its most distressing and absurd, Lebanon’s water pollution enters the realm of the tragicomic. In mountain villages, households often release their liquid waste directly into the ground, while consuming untreated water pumped from a source downhill. Hamra—a lively neighborhood in west Beirut known for its nightlife—offers an urban equivalent: while some buildings syphon their water from the underlying aquifer through artesian wells drilled during the civil war, others inject their sewage straight into it. The water-table itself is mixed with seawater fouled by the capital’s culverts. Some residents therefore complain, typically without knowing the detail, about the thick, brackish water they end up showering in.

All is well

Many Lebanese find it tempting—and remarkably easy—to believe that their corner of Lebanon is relatively insulated. Ultimately, however, mismanaged waste is the perfect equalizer: because it affects water—which crosses all geographical, sectarian and class boundaries—it touches everyone, if only through the food chain. Yet despite growing evidence of the system’s many problems, most people have managed to remain in denial—thanks, in large part, to a collectively maintained lack of transparency.

Popular beach resorts have produced self-serving tests that carefully leave out key pollutants such as heavy metals. In interviews, doctors blame the waste crisis for a discernible increase in eczema, psoriasis and other skin diseases, along with diarrhea and respiratory allergies—but they also caution that, in the absence of data compiled and circulated by the Ministry of Health, their individual experiences were not sufficient to establish a trend. A sorely-needed, countrywide water quality study—part of a 2016 household survey funded by UNICEF in collaboration with the Ministry of Water and Energy—has yet to be published months after completion. For once, even the garbage bag didn’t see a copy.

Anecdotal evidence is alarming but doesn’t make an impact

Anecdotal evidence is alarming, but—as a rule—it either doesn’t make its way to the general public, or doesn’t make an impact despite being heard. In Mount Lebanon, a particularly proactive mayor commissioned his own tests of the village’s several springs, and later admitted: “It’s so bad I just can’t share the outcomes with my constituents, until I have solutions to propose to them. What’s the point of making them panic?” By contrast, another locality in south Lebanon has been publishing results year after year showing high levels of E. coli and Streptococci faecalis—bacterial indicators of fecal contamination. In 2014, according to the mayor, no fewer than 120 out of 2,000 residents—that is, more than 1 in 20—were affected by hepatitis A, a virus that spreads through water spoiled by excrements from a sick person. In this case, the population chooses to ignore publicly available information. “The water can’t be polluted,” a young woman protested. “If it was, we’d die.”

In 2017, the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI), which is affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture, performed tests on core ingredients of tabbouleh—a classic, widespread Lebanese dish—to assess the impact of water pollution on a staple component of meals around the country. Mint and parsley crops grown around the Litani and Ghzayel rivers displayed lead levels between 2 and 12 times the acceptable limit per EU regulations. Among other issues, lead may cause hypertension and impairment of the kidneys, and affect the development of juvenile brains.

Aside from these immediate effects, such sanitary hazards may ultimately have far-reaching economic consequences: in short, Lebanese may choose not to care, but consumers elsewhere do. In May 2017, the United Arab Emirates banned the import of Lebanese apples—one of the country’s major exports—citing excessive pesticide usage. While not directly linked to waste management, the episode portends future restrictions if pollutants of all kinds further contaminate Lebanon’s agricultural output. The long-term implication of that trend is that Lebanon would import more, export less, and continue recycling and processing next to nothing. In a word, the country is on the path toward being colonised by its own garbage bags.

Usual suspects

This dismal state of affairs naturally raises the question of how—in a middle-income country with Lebanon’s reputation for cosmopolitanism—dynamics surrounding waste management have deteriorated to such a point. As noted above, a widespread but flimsy refrain accuses Syrian refugees, whose presence merely added new layers to a problem that long preceded them. For others, it is tempting to pin the blame on the lingering effects of civil war or some diffuse, nebulous specter of “corruption.” Yet these, too, offer little if any real insight into the issue at hand.

On one level, it is tempting to seek out the origins of the crisis in Lebanon’s 1975-90 breakdown—a 15-year conflict that ravaged infrastructure in ways that continue to plague the country today. Yet one would be hard-pressed to identify any clear linkage between that conflict and the dismal state of services today—particularly given the volume of money invested in waste management throughout the post-war period. The CDR assesses that, between 1992 and 2015, 675 million dollars have been spent on improving waste water management alone, with remarkably little in the way of results.

Another instinct is to speculate about “corruption,” which is indeed a fact of life in Lebanon, but which has not been proven to play a role in the current crisis. The waste management system in Beirut and Mount Lebanon—which from 1994 to mid-2017 was based on a contract between the central government and a private company, Sukleen—has been a lighting-rod for criticism. The arrangement, superb on paper, was full of deficiencies and possible red flags, including alleged closeness between Sukleen’s ownership and political factions; uncompetitive tendering; consistently unmet benchmarks for sorting, composting and recycling; and the Middle East’s highest per unit waste management costs, at 130 US dollars or more per ton. But major shortcomings were documented both by the National Audit Office and by Sukleen itself, which claims to have sent no less than 323 letters of complaint to successive governments. Public criticism, ironically, mostly started when the deal broke down, in 2015—21 years into what had been a relatively transparent mess.

A more tangible form of garbage-related economic predation is real estate speculation. Time and again, dumpsites have been established on the coastline illegally (as per 1974 legislation), only to be pushed into the sea and built over. The Normandy landfill in downtown Beirut, which served as an ad hoc outlet during the civil war and up to its closure in 1994, set the inaugural precedent. In the early 2000s, its estimated 5 million cubic meters of waste were partially treated, with only 20% excavated for sorting, before being redeveloped into the privately-held Zaitunay Bay—lined with swimming pools, posh restaurants, a yacht club and exclusive properties.

Similar privatization plans appear to be underway in the Northern city of Tripoli, where a marina and residential complex could extend across both the coastal dumpsite and the public beach. The Bourj Hammoud landfill, the second ad hoc outlet used in Beirut while fighting cut the city down the middle, is expected to follow the template; since mid-2017, its estimated 6 million cubic meters have been tipped into the Mediterranean, reportedly with even less concern for environmental damage than was shown at Normandy. All told, these schemes indeed capture the sort of socially irresponsible profiteering that characterizes much of Lebanon’s political economy; they do not, however, provide any real insight regarding the broader state of waste management in Lebanon.

The Beirut bottleneck

The roots of today’s crisis run deeper than any of the above explanations, touching on some of the most entrenched and vexing pathologies of a system that is built for gridlock even in the face of urgent, unmistakable catastrophe. At the top, Lebanon’s waste and water systems exemplify Beirut’s penchant for expensive, grandiose visions whose implementation is, in the final estimation, either nonexistent or haphazard, plagued by wasteful spending and weak follow-up.  For instance, the 11 mostly dysfunctional waste water plants mentioned above were part of a “waste water masterplan” rolled out by the Ministry of Energy and Water in 1994, and which forecast a total of 54 such facilities.

More recently, the CDR in 2006 put forth its ten-year vision for solid waste management, which foresaw the establishment of six landfills and 14 recycling and composting centers. Unfunded, it was further developed in 2010, with the introduction of “waste-to-energy” solutions that would hypothetically turn garbage from Lebanon’s major cities into fuel. CDR then expounded a masterplan in 2012, in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment, to map and rehabilitate dumpsites around the country. “That, too, came to nothing,” lamented an official at the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR), “for lack of budgeting.”

Failing follow through is largely a consequence of the country’s fragmented politics, with power sharing agreements frequently triggering internal disputes and cabinet reshuffles. Since 1993, the average length of a minister’s mandate has been 19 months. “Let’s imagine an honest minister, full of good will,” theorised an official from the Higher Council of Privatization. “The best appointee will take six months to get on top of things. By the time projects are running, the government resigns, and it takes nine months to agree on a successor. We’re a country where projects mostly stay frozen in the drawer.”

When progress does come, it is tentative, piecemeal and short-lived

When progress does come, it is generally tentative, piecemeal and short-lived, stemming either from foreign funding, major crises, or a combination of the two. In recent years, both have prompted a seemingly random assortment of projects that never add up to a policy per se. External partners have mostly stayed clear of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, opting for small-scale interventions elsewhere. The result has been a number of interesting but scattershot precedents.

UNDP specialized in awareness campaigns and recycling centres between 1996 and 1998; around the same time, the World Bank financed the construction in Zahle of a landfill that has gradually become a model of its kind. In 2003, the EU invested money and expertise in administrative reforms and municipal capacity building while the US Agency for International Development focused on composting. Attention then shifted to pollution flowing from the olive oil industry, before destruction caused by Israeli bombing in 2006 spurred a whole new generation of projects, notably a multimillion euro initiative benefiting municipalities in the South.

While undoubtedly important, the change effected by such measures is—in the final estimation—marginal rather than fundamental. As currently structured, donor engagement has little prospect of altering the core dynamics of Lebanon’s waste predicament—namely, a cyclical crisis whereby failing “emergency solutions” are met with more of the same. Many Lebanese will have forgotten that the 2015 breakdown had an eerie precedent in 1997, when the government was forced to shut down the overflowing Burj Hammoud dumpsite. Naameh was opened as a temporary fix, and its closure 18 years later led to the provisional reactivation… of Burj Hammoud, itself a makeshift landfill since 1975.

Incidentally, the latest emergency plan, adopted on 12 March 2016, was designed by the same minister, Akram Chehayeb, who put forth its 1997 equivalent. Now as then, it offers only a short reprieve, after which the government has promised a long-term fix. Today, that prophesied solution consists of a giant incinerator with a daily capacity of 2,000 tons, which would not only dissipate Beirut’s trash into the atmosphere, but power the city through “waste-to-energy” technology. The government’s self-imposed deadline for reaching an agreement on this supposed panacea has been overdue since May 2017. The garbage bag’s story is indeed one of promising but largely unimplemented plans and legislation.

Decentralised chaos

Another respect in which Lebanon’s waste crisis reflects broader governance issues relates to the dysfunctional relationship between the country’s local and central authorities. In theory, waste management is a sector that lends itself to local solutions: regional or municipal authorities are better placed than national ones to assess and respond to such issues on the ground. Indeed, waste management in Lebanon represents one of the few core responsibilities of municipal councils. In practice, however, Lebanon’s system is riddled with idiosyncrasies and inefficiencies, creating a set of challenges that say much about its administrative fabric more broadly.

The most glaring peculiarity in Lebanon’s nationwide waste management system lies in a disconnect between central Lebanon, on one hand, and the rest of the country, on the other. Specifically, the national government has long presided over waste management in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, which in practical terms has meant CDR signing and re-signing a massive, poorly enforced and uncompetitive contract with Sukleen.

While municipal bodies within these territories could in principle seek to liberate themselves from this dysfunctional relationship, the unreliability of local funding made this a risky prospect. “Legally speaking, all it would have taken for a mayor to emancipate was to send a formal letter to the CDR and the Minister of Interior,” stressed the head of environmental programs at a local NGO. “But Sukleen was paid by the state, while municipalities generally didn’t have a dependable budget of their own. So most feared ending up swamped with trash.”

Lebanon’s system is riddled with idiosyncrasies and inefficiencies

Outside of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, meanwhile, waste management is dealt with by municipal councils, which in turn are hamstrung by precisely the unreliability referenced by the NGO worker above.

In theory, municipalities enjoy significant streams of “own revenue,” through local taxes, surcharges and fees collected on their behalf by the government, state-held companies or the private sector—as in the case of mobile phone operators. Specifically, a 2016 decree issued by the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities pointed to a total envelope of roughly 440 billion Lebanese pounds—almost 300 million dollars—available in 2015 for distribution to municipal councils. In practice, however, such funds often prove insufficient to support quality services or investments, are transferred inconsistently, and are subject to bureaucratic bottlenecks. Holdups are linked to a system whereby sums destined for municipalities are first placed by central authorities into a centralized pool known as the Independent Municipal Fund (IMF) before being redistributed to municipalities according to a byzantine formula with potential for crippling delays. For example, official record-keeping captures the fact that nationwide IMF allocations covering 2006 were not released until October 2008.

A mayor in southern Lebanon offered a succinct illustration of the problem: “We pay a company and three of our workers to manage our rubbish, for a total of 72 million Lebanese pounds [or 47,687 dollars] a year. As we only scrape 120 million from the IMF, trash eats up the largest chunk of our income, leaving little for other core functions.” Loans to bridge deficits are not infrequent: a northern mayor even claimed that in 2017 he loaned 66,000 dollars, out of pocket, to bridge funding gaps for his own municipality. Another mayor in Akkar grumbled: “here we pay for Sukleen, but they never even showed up.” Nor had they any reason to, in a village far beyond the remit of Sukleen’s contract in Beirut and Mount Lebanon—yet the comment reflects widespread convolution and confusion regarding division of labor and responsibility in a system where the IMF often seems to vacuum up local funds without ever returning them or providing any service.

Meanwhile, diverse stakeholders across Lebanon note the frequency with which funding gaps are confounded by incompetence at the municipal level. This is due partly to the fact that municipal institutions are routinely stacked with political loyalists and appointees, who lack the expertise required to manage relatively technical issues such as waste. NGOs like Arc-en-Ciel and Nahnoo, along with various foreign-sponsored programs, have delivered a range of relevant trainings and free advisory services. A frequent hindrance, however, is the sheer unwillingness of local decision-makers to initiate any change. The director of environmental projects for a local NGO complained: “We offered a solution to the head of a large municipality of Mount Lebanon who was interested in our project. In the end, he refused to switch from the current service provider to our product because he didn’t want to take responsibility.”

These many obstacles notwithstanding, Lebanon indeed boasts success stories

In some places, flagging motivation among municipal councils relates to the nature of local politics. Polls for municipal representation often hinge on votes from individuals who long since left the locality in question—or, in some cases, never lived there to begin with. This system reduces the accountability of officials vis-à-vis residents who experience the unpleasant sights, smells and sanitary effects of raw sewage and burning dumpsites, but who may not play a decisive electoral role.

Red tape imposed by central authorities is another dissuasive factor, demanding considerable resolve and legwork on the part of local leaders seeking solutions. A mayor in the South, who ultimately succeeded in equipping his village with an independent recycling facility, recalled having to get four different ministries just to approve the building permit—a process that consumed months of his time. Typically, pushing issues through the bureaucracy also requires well-placed connections within the ruling political class.

These many obstacles notwithstanding, Lebanon indeed boasts success stories for municipalities standing up effective, sustainable waste management systems. Yet these victories are relatively rare and not necessarily replicable, contingent as they are on local wealth and strong-willed public figures. “Decentralization can only truly work,” insisted an official at the Lebanese parliament, “when personally backed by some politician or another.” In Bikfaya—a town north of Beirut—the Bi Clean program was endorsed by the Phalangist MP Samy Gemayel, and now treats up to 20 tons per day at a price of 50.66 dollars—less than a third of what the town paid under Sukleen. Zero waste projects have taken hold in well-off localities such as Beit Mery and Antoura, in central Lebanon, and combine sorting–both at the household level and in a local center–; composting organic waste; selling recyclable materials; and finally compacting inert materials. 

Not in my backyard

A default posture in Lebanon is to blame “the state,” or the absence thereof. Yet when it comes to garbage, there is enough blame to go around. Indeed, although do-nothing politicians play the most conspicuous role, private citizens are likewise implicated insofar as they improperly dispose of waste or simply remain indifferent to the scale of the problem unfolding. A journalist in the northern city of Tripoli captured the diffusion of responsibility in the local garbage malaise: “Everything is the problem. The municipality is ineffective, the company hired by the municipality lacks equipment, and the people throw their garbage in the street. Meanwhile, the municipality is removed from the people; the people are removed from the municipality; and the company is removed from both. Of course this will never work.”

Indeed, citizens often meet the issue of waste management with sheer apathy. Just broaching the topic routinely prompts “yaatik al-aafieh,” or “God give you good health”—as a standard response designed to preempt any meaningful conversation. In the country’s most upscale areas, a whiff of effluents may sweep a fancy open-air restaurant without prompting the slightest response.

Citizens often meet the issue with sheer apathy

Ultimately, garbage only ever provokes meaningful reactions in one of two sets of circumstances. The first is when trash literally builds up on people’s doorstep, to the point of becoming unbearable, as with the closure of Naameh. A second rule is sadly communal. Lebanese will tolerate their own waste to a surprising degree, but may erupt in protest at the prospect of receiving rubbish from another community just down the road. The Amrousieh incinerator was mysteriously burned down, during the 1997 crisis, most probably for fear that East Beirut garbage would be redirected to West Beirut. In 2015, when politicians floated the idea of sending waste from the capital to the northern dumpsite of Srar, locals took arms, blockaded the area, and protested unbearable water pollution. The site, inaugurated in 1996, caused no grumbling of note before the incident… nor ever since.

This “not in my backyard, unless it’s mine” mentality led politicians to make the most fanciful pleas in response to the Sukleen crisis. In July 2015, the Minister of Environment, Mohammed Al-Machnouk, suggested shipping the country’s garbage to Turkey. By January 2016, some were talking about exporting it to Russia. Another plan involved building a landfill in the no-man’s-land along the Syrian border. None of these fantasies seemed to factor in the absurd costs of transporting such volumes of untreated waste over great distances. They did accurately reflect, however, a popular desire to see garbage simply disappear over the horizon. Sukleen, indeed, never raised red flags as long as it fulfilled that basic expectation. The 2017 decision to bulldoze trash into the Mediterranean captures the same dynamic: so long as the trash was pushed out of sight, most citizens were content to leave it out of mind.

Sorting things out

The garbage bag can attest that practical responses to the crisis do exist, and within everyone’s reach. Indeed, it is essential to recognize that—although long-term progress will certainly require steps by the central government—there can be no solution without far broader engagement at the scale of citizens than is currently the case.

The starting point, in this respect, is so-called “sorting at the source”: the separation, at the household level, between organic materials, recyclables, and everything else. In a well-functioning system, sorting at the source can vastly reduce the financial and logistical demands of waste management, which in turn helps maximize the value-producing aspects of waste (e.g. recycling, composting) while minimizing the toxic side-effects of haphazard disposal. In Lebanon’s status quo, the concept is virtually nonexistent, such that any and all sorting falls to authorities that have, to date, proven themselves either incapable of or disinterested in carrying out the responsibility effectively. Although citizens can and should ask more of their government, any durable solution will hinge on greater awareness and engagement among Lebanese themselves.

Practical responses to the crisis do exist, and within everyone’s reach

Incineration provides the starkest illustration of why sorting is so essential. Although it is tempting to imagine that simply burning trash is an efficient and low-cost disposal mechanism for all manner of refuse, realities are more complicated. First, a lot of waste simply doesn’t burn—notably metals, glass, and other inert materials. Second, excess water, which comes largely from large quantities of organic waste, prevents proper combustion: it lowers the temperature in the furnace and significantly increases the levels of dangerous exhausts. Third, incinerating the wrong combination of materials produces excess volumes of toxic ash and fluid, which are difficult to neutralize, and expensive to export. Fourth, and while not strictly related to the issue of sorting, incineration simply is not a cost-effective method of waste management: burning waste costs up to four times more than other technologies, and in the meantime tends to destroy recyclable and compostable material that could be used productively. “You have calorific value in jeans, tissues, diapers even,” said the founder of a local NGO. “Incinerating organic waste is nonsensical. It must be composted.” In short, incineration has drawbacks at the best of times, but all the more so when the garbage being burned comes in bulk.

Composting also points to the critical importance of sorting. Turning organic waste into useable fertilizer is a complex technical process, which requires the right kind, quantity and mix of ingredients; a carefully controlled temperature; frequent stirring; and considerable time—usually weeks. Lebanon’s waste management lacks any established (let alone enforced) guidelines to standardise this process, despite the fact that improper composting may produce fertiliser that—beyond simply being suboptimal—can indeed kill healthy plants. At one plant in the south, a worker shared a recipe that would make your flowerbeds shudder: “here we shred fruit, vegetables, paper, cardboard and diapers, which mature in a revolving barrel for just three or four days.” In a stark reflection of this problem, Spinneys—a high-end supermarket chain—switched in 2017 to selling French compost, such that Lebanon was importing garbage despite being unable to dispose of its own.

Various other forms of recycling likewise underscore the need for systematic sorting. In short, efforts to extract value from discarded material become less economically viable the more resources are required to direct it toward reuse. Absent any sorting at the source, waste must be trucked to facilities and then parsed in bulk, creating major additional overhead: larger volumes are transported unnecessarily, more workers are needed on site, and unusable waste must still be disposed of.

Moreover, large amounts of potential recyclables are also squandered through contamination by organic waste. “We used to spend 6 million pounds [or 4,000 dollars] per month on our small plant,” explained a municipal employee in the South. “Now we’ve gone back to dumping everything in a field, for half that budget. It’s more sustainable.” Several other facilities around the country, often established through foreign aid, have similarly been shuttered. (Other recycling centers, built in the Shouf and Baalbek, were burned down in 2016, likely by traditional hawkers who saw them as unfair competition, according to an OMSAR representative.)

Finally, the above dynamics relating to the economics of garbage underscore a fundamental misconception: that garbage is gold. Such notions as “waste-to-energy,” along with the multiplication of small but successful recycling companies and initiatives, have popularized the idea that trash is a resource. The garbage bag is sorry to disappoint: with few exceptions, profitable models are based on how much residents and municipalities are willing to pay for removing their refuse; the intrinsic value of the latter, in itself, rarely covers the costs of doing so.

Indeed, waste is not easily transformed into something reusable. Metal objects stand as exceptions in this regard: generally, they are neutral to the environment, can be smelted and recast indefinitely, and therefore may be resold for substantial sums. Glass comes close, although the presence of multiple colors complicates the process of reprocessing. The recycling of many plastics is either technically unfeasible or economically unsustainable: in a bottle of Lebanese mineral water, for instance, only the cap has real value. And the quality of paper fast degrades when reused. Thus raw material, whose rates vary according to local demand, available facilities, and international prices, hardly reach 1 dollar per kilogram in the best of cases. A mayor in Mount Lebanon therefore turned down a recycling center project upon hearing that the municipality would be required to pay fees to the facility, rather than the reverse.

* * *

Lebanon’s trash problem is a multifaceted one, and some aspects are more intractable than others. Improving waste water management, for instance, will require considerable investments in infrastructure combined with far-reaching institutional reforms. In the Lebanese context, such progress will happen slowly—if at all. The same is true of the structural overhaul required to enable local solutions to waste management: while Lebanese civil society and politicians have long discussed the need for some form of administrative decentralization, there is little reason to hope that this might come soon. As such, the best chance for near-term progress resides in a more diligent nationwide approach to sorting and recycling, augmented by both an influx of donor support and a groundswell of civic initiatives seeking to make a difference at the margins.

Ultimately, Lebanon needs all of the above: long-term, system-wide solutions coupled with urgent measures to rein in the trash crisis. If the country continues failing to deliver on all fronts, the situation will grow increasingly explosive—in both figurative and literal terms. Indeed, an EU official claimed that Naameh came close to exploding in recent years, as a result of unreleased gas accumulating under the layers of decomposing trash; European intervention, in his view, saved the day.

Lebanon doesn’t need more landfills and incinerators; it needs less unmanageable trash

A similar warning came from a municipal councilman in Al-Mina, a coastal town in the northern district of Tripoli. Al-Mina plays host to its own overgrown and unregulated dump, which sits squarely on the Mediterranean and which is referred to by residents as “the trash mountain”: “On one hand, waste has piled up to a height of 36 meters, when the containment wall is only 20”, he said. “That means it could easily burst and all fall into the sea. On the other, gas has been building up beneath since 2013, when the machinery used to extract it broke down. It could explode any second, and we’re right in the middle of the city. The results would be catastrophic.”

Occasionally, proposed solutions appear almost as dangerous as the problem itself. Most obviously, politicians in Beirut have lately been pinning their hopes for solving the city’s waste crisis on the installation of a large incinerator—despite warnings from some experts that such a project could pose even greater risks. “I think people have no idea what this technology is about: such a plant can become highly unstable,” warned an EU expert. “It requires security measures and levels of maintenance almost as sophisticated as a nuclear plant. You can import one from Denmark, but Lebanon is not Denmark.” Moreover, feasibility studies from the American University in Beirut point to the prospect that such a plant could sit, for lack of open space in a city squeezed between the mountain and the sea, in the heart of the capital.

Lebanon doesn’t need more dumpsites, landfills and incinerators, enabling it to continue down the same, self-destructive path. Above all else, it urgently need less unmanageable trash, and this goal will ultimately demand significant movement at the state level. For their part, donors would do well to work toward tackling the problem at its roots—for example through renewed emphasis on the administrative reforms essential for a functioning system.

But ordinary Lebanese have their part to play too. For now, the vast majority are mostly encouraging their government in the wrong direction, toward finding ways of papering over the problem at any cost to the environment. Without greater popular awareness at that level—however incremental, however small—things won’t change at all. You cannot just banish, bury or burn the garbage bag. You must acknowledge it, coexist and work with it, lest it writes your epitaph.

30 October 2017

Ranine Awwad is a fellow with Synaps.

Illustration credits: Synaps photography / licensed by CC.

With grateful thanks to Amal Ghandour, who initiated and seeded this project.

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