Lebanese initiative born out of the trash crisis
Beirut - Piles of garbage blocking streets and the nauseating stench of putrefied waste could very well be a source of inspiration. It definitely inspired Rima Salameh, a journalist turned eco-warrior, whose Recycle Today for a Better Tomorrow initiative is gaining momentum a year after the garbage crisis in Lebanon sparked public protests and unrest that nearly brought down the country’s government.
While recycling at the source is a well-established practice in many countries, it is not very widespread in Lebanon where all types of waste, except for hazardous hospital materials, are dumped in landfills. Salameh’s initiative aimed at introducing recycling at the source to reduce the amount of waste sent for final disposal.
“The garbage crisis triggered something in me. I felt it was outrageous that in this century you still face such a crisis so I said to myself I should do something,” Salameh said.
Lebanon’s trash crisis erupted in July 2015 when the country’s main Naameh landfill was closed with no plans in place to absorb the daily refuse from the Beirut area’s 2 million residents. In March, the government approved an emergency plan to open three landfills near Beirut as a temporary solution.
Salameh first targeted her immediate neighbourhood and the offices of the Daily Star newspaper where she was employed.
“I got a paper company to provide free recycling boxes and the garbage collection company, Sukleen, to collect the recyclable paper from the office,” she said. “At home, I talked to neighbours, put up signs and provided recycling guides to residents in my buildings and two adjacent blocks to teach them sorting their rubbish and had a company come once a week to pick up the recyclables and it worked.”
Reduce waste, reuse where possible and recycle everything that can be recycled is the bottom line that drives Salameh’s initiative.
“The aim is to save as much as possible from trash going to the landfill. It is a two-way recycling stream including mixed paper and cardboard, which would go in one bag and other recyclables like glass, metal and plastic that goes in another bag,” she said.
There are rules for recycling that Salameh disseminated to her neighbours and colleagues. “Recyclables should be clean — rinsed a little under tap water — because when paper, for instance, gets contaminated, even slightly, no one would take it and it would end up in the landfill.”
Salameh engaged residential, business and commercial communities along Rue Verdun, a main artery in Beirut, in recycling. She enlisted the support of Beirut Municipality, the Verdun Traders and Establishment Association and recycling company Re-Serving.
The 1km avenue includes a mix of residential buildings, offices, cafés, restaurants, shops, cinemas and schools, which started recycling their waste when the pilot project was launched in January.
Salameh said: “I recruited volunteers from schools and universities and trained them to help in raising awareness and disseminating the project. They did door-to-door campaigning, distributed flyers and put up recycling posters before we started the weekly collection of recyclables, which is done by Re- Serving.”
Salameh distributed recycling boxes to shops and businesses along the street and put up outdoor recycling bins on main corners. Beirut Municipality allocated two environment officers to monitor proper implementation of recycling directives, guide people and make sure that they are not mixing up garbage.
“It took a great deal of time and effort,” Salameh said. “We had trouble at the beginning as we were seeing mixed garbage but with follow-up visits people started grasping the importance of recycling and are more committed now.”
Salameh’s initiative was mostly welcomed, especially by companies and businesses along Rue Verdun that produce a considerable amount of paper waste. “We are already recycling and have been doing it for years,” noted Dania Eido, an employee at Cedrus Bank. “We have one box for papers that we consume a lot at the bank. It is a great idea and I hope people are committed and doing it.”
Not all businesses showed as much enthusiasm and commitment. “We have too much work here. We forget to separate the waste. We just don’t have time for that,” commented a manager in a cloth shop next to the bank.
“It is not easy to have people abide by instructions in a country where even laws are constantly violated,” remarked Ahmad, a salesman in a watch shop. “People complain about garbage piling up but they do nothing about it. Some even think that why should they bother to help others, namely recycling companies, make profit.”
Salameh is determined to expand a culture of recycling.
“Zero-waste Verdun is my target with organic waste eventually going for composting,” she said. “Residents in other areas are following us [on Facebook] and asking when you will come to our neighbourhood.
“I wish everybody would start recycling because, once garbage is separated, we would be solving half the problem. People, I believe, have become more mature and aware following the crisis. In other countries the focus is no longer on recycling but on reducing waste. In Lebanon, we stay way behind but for the time being it is a good start.”