Garbage crisis latest of Lebanon’s woes

Friday 31/07/2015
Beirut resident wears gas mask to protect against smell from piles of garbage

BEIRUT - A garbage crisis has be­come the latest of Lebanon’s many prob­lems, exacerbated by an inefficient cabinet torn by political divisions. While Lebanon’s rival politicians wrangle over how to manage the country’s waste, mounds of trash have been piling up in the streets of Beirut and the cities and towns of Mount Lebanon district amid high sum­mer temperatures, triggering an­gry protests by residents who fear health hazards.

The crisis started when the country’s main landfill in Naameh, south of Beirut, was closed on July 17, without an alternative dumping ground made available. The com­pany in charge of garbage collec­tion, Sukleen, had its contract ex­pire alongside the dump’s closure.

Although the garbage crisis could have been anticipated, Lebanon’s government has failed to agree on a national waste management so­lution, deadlocked by internal divi­sions over politics, especially since the Syrian conflict erupted more than four years ago.

Angry residents have taken to setting garbage piles and contain­ers aflame, cutting off Beirut’s streets, as demonstrators have blocked the country’s main coastal highway leading to the south to protest a plan to dump rubbish from the capital — home to more than half of Lebanon’s population — at sites around the country.

Beirut MP Mohamad Kabbani, a member of the Sunni Future Move­ment, blamed the government’s inefficiency on “corruption and carelessness”.

“There is no politician who has a vision to deal with any of Leba­non’s political and economic prob­lems. We are suffering from the ab­sence of planning in any sector in Lebanon, not only the waste treat­ment,” Kabbani said.

He said “crippling” conditions were placed on new bidders for garbage collection, discourag­ing many to come forward. “One condition was that bidders should themselves secure a dumping ground, and thus become prey to politicians,” he said.

He argued that corruption was thriving under Lebanon’s sectar­ian system, affecting all aspects of public life. “It is complete political chaos and nobody cares,” Kabbani said. “If I want to criticise (Chris­tian Maronite Foreign Minister) Gebran Bassil (from the rival Free Patriotic Movement), for example, they would say I am attacking the Maronite community. I can only criticise those from my own reli­gion or sect.”

While Beirut was drowning un­der massive piles of rubbish, in the port city of Sidon, 40 kilometres to the south, a garbage problem does not exist.

Sidon, home for more than 250,000 people, resolved its waste management issue almost three years ago, when a private company established the country’s first solid waste treatment plan.

“It is by far the best possible solu­tion, among all available options,” said Karim Hammoud, the plant’s deputy general manager. “By the end of the year, we will have zero waste at the Sidon plant.”

The plant, which has a capacity to process 550 tons of garbage dai­ly, uses the mechanical biological treatment technique to manage the waste. Hammoud explained that organic (food) waste is separated before being processed into com­post used by farmers as fertilisers, while the gas emanating from the waste is used to produce electricity to run the plant and light several streets in Sidon.

The non-organic components, including glass, cardboard and plastic, are processed separately and recycled for export and indus­trial use.

While politicians disagree over the best option to manage the waste, Hammoud insists that the mechanical biological treatment procedure remains the most effi­cient and hazard-free solution, the other options being to continue landfilling or resort to incinerators.

He argued that using landfills is not a proper solution, even if dumps were built in a hygienic way with rubber lining to prevent leak­age of liquids produced by waste into the soil.

“Landfilling was seen as a plau­sible option in the past, but with technological development, it was proven that such a technique was causing a lot of diseases and ill­nesses, including cancer,” Ham­moud said. He explained that more than 50% of Lebanon’s waste is composed of organic components, which, when exposed to the sun heat, emit different types of gases, including extremely harmful sulfu­ric gas.

Incineration of garbage was also brushed aside by Hammoud as a non-starter, unsuitable to manage Lebanon’s unsorted waste. “It is a very costly procedure, which is mostly used in advanced countries with sorted garbage and organic waste not exceeding 25%, which is not the case of Lebanon.”

“When you have large percent­age of highly humid organic waste, it does not really burn, besides the fact that garbage should be sorted and separated before going into the incinerator,” Hammoud said.

Sidon’s solid waste management plant could be duplicated in other parts of Lebanon to resolve the ev­er-dragging garbage problem. But this solution or any other appears to be delayed due to exacerbating political bickering and rivalry.

In the meantime, pedestrians and travellers in Beirut’s streets are wearing masks to guard against foul smells and to avoid breathing toxins emanating from the rubbish piles rotting in the summer heat.

Social media users have been lambasting the government and posting sarcastic jokes about the situation.

“You stink like the trash in the street,” one Twitter user said of government officials. A photo, shared on Facebook, showed the Lebanese flag in which the coun­try’s national symbol, the Cedar tree, was replaced by a “garbage tree”.

While politicians are still wres­tling over a waste management policy, a village in Mount Lebanon has also found an innovative way to get rid of its organic waste, by of­fering it to cattle and chickens.

Could releasing chickens and livestock onto Beirut’s street be a solution to the mounting garbage problem?