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.”