Three years after the Lebanese people called on their government to deal with the city’s overflowing landfills, the breezy, picturesque summers of Beirut are still overcome by the pungent smell of trash. After a city-wide campaign titled “You Stink” (“Re7etkon Tel3et” in Arabic) in 2015, scores of Beirutis took to the streets to clean up the mountains of trash that littered their city. Today, even as a number of NGO and civil society actors work to pick up the trash that the government has failed to find a sustainable solution for, the trash crisis continues to obstruct daily life in Beirut.
The trash crisis is the result of a number of blows that have left the small country reeling. But as the government scurried to resolve the crisis, they often resorted to digging more landfills. Despite the government let-down, the Lebanese people have proven that banding together can yield sustainable solutions in the face of such a pressing crisis.
Lebanon’s History With Trash
Lebanon’s current trash crisis is not its first; the country had a similar run-in with trash during its ravaging civil war. In a series of diplomatic cables published by American Intelligence, it is reported that the fighting was often interrupted by vile accumulations of trash. And while the war was a good enough reason for the government (or lack thereof at the time) to slack on collecting trash, the destruction wrought by the war in many ways created the foundation for the crisis that persists today.
Beirut’s lack of adequate infrastructure is the main reason that the city continues to drown in trash. More than 25 years after the end of the Civil War, Lebanese politicians continue to play a game of pass-the-trash in parliament, with MPs pointing fingers at one another. In the late 1990s, the Lebanese government dug the Naameh landfill as a temporary measure to dispose of trash. And although it seemed like an efficient fix, in July 2015, residents of the town just south of Beirut ventured to forcibly close the landfill in protest of the overflowing trash. The failure of Sukleen, a private garbage collecting company, to efficiently dispose of collected trash, is an extension of governmental failure.
The anti-trash protests in Beirut during the summer of 2015 pushed the government to promise to close other landfills, although it seemed that officials had no alternatives. And while the protests were largely addressing the festering rubbish on the streets, anger with the scattered trash was also symbolic of the Lebanese people’s frustration with corruption and political inadequacy.
The Rise of Civilian-Led Recycling
In the weeks following the trash crisis in Beirut, many Beirutis took up the responsibility of informing their fellow citizens of how to recycle and its importance – doing the government’s work for them, in other words. Local municipalities took initiative and began handing out flyers, explaining how individuals could recycle at home. Ziad Abi Chaker, one of Lebanon’s leading garbage entrepreneurs and founder of Cedar Environmental, rose to stardom and even brought in a mobile recycling unit to the coastal town of Zouk, which was his graduation project in 1993.
Contrary to popular belief, a large number of recycling plants exist across Lebanon. The lists and names of these plants were quickly circulated online and through word of mouth. Even Hezbollah, Lebanon’s largest paramilitary group, spoke out against the crisis, calling for a reasonable solution to bring the trash crisis to an end.
Recycle Beirut, one initiative that sprang up in during the crisis, is one of the city’s most active recycling plants. The organization was co-founded by the Palestinian Kassem Kazak, a computer engineer, in 2014 and operates out of a rented warehouse in Jnah in south Beirut where recyclable materials are sorted. Recycle Beirut saves approximately four tons of non-organic materials every day from being thrown into the sea or burned by putting together a simple recycling system.
Rather than waiting on people to bring the trash to them, Recycle Beirut picks up non-organic materials from households, companies, and embassies in the Beirut, Metn, and Baabda areas. It then sorts and crushes the trash, packages it, and sends it to a number of different manufacturing companies, which use recyclable material like plastic or paper in production. Recycle Beirut tends to approximately 4,000 clients and charges $10 per pick up per facility or $5 for entire residential or commercial buildings.
What sets Recycle Beirut apart from other waste management initiatives is the fact that the facility employs refugees, thus addressing two of Lebanon’s most pressing crises at the same time: the influx of Palestinian and Syrian refugees into the country and the garbage crisis.
Refugees make up a number of Recycle Beirut’s 20 sorters, warehouse workers and managers, operational managers, drivers, and outreach coordinators. Recycle Beirut also provides English language classes to refugees as well as workshops open to the public to raise awareness about the importance of recycling. The organization employs six Syrian women at the warehouse, providing them with a source of income in a country that continues to struggle to provide sufficient job opportunities for its residents.
As Recycle Beirut has deemed itself as a successful intermediary between individuals and businesses and treating their trash, it also has plans to expand as a waste management facility. As of July of 2017, Kazak said that Recycle Beirut acquired a glass crushing machine from Hong Kong that will crush glass to be used as a substitute for sand in tile-making, with the objective of preserving the country’s natural sands.
Kazak says to progrss in an interview that, despite hundreds of meetings with civil society and governmental organizations, no one has backed him and his partner, Alexander, leaving Recycle Beirut to take flight only from their personal savings. “We’re trying as much as we can to fix the problem [with trash] while also turning over some profit,” he says. Most of their employees are from poor backgrounds and are refugees, which is why maintaining a steady profit is also integral to the success of Recycle Beirut.
“Recycle Beirut started out with two people, who were also its only two employees. But, soon enough, it picked up with Lebanese society and now have a really good reputation. This is how [our work] will grow and we’ll be able to reach more people,” Kazak tells progrss.
Last summer, Beirut’s municipality offered to transport trash from 40 buildings in the Verdun area for a duration of two months. Kazak, however, hopes to expand collaborative efforts with other organizations so as to engage the community and local politicians in the recycling process. Albeit difficult to treat the trash of a country of close to four million, the community’s engagement in working to clean up their streets is speeding up the process.
Trash Crisis Be Gone
Lebanon’s problem with trash is far more than just an eyesore or an unpleasant smell. In a Human Rights Watch report, many residents claim they face difficulty sleeping due to the smell and fumes of the trash. The report also discussed the health risks the trash poses to Lebanon’s citizens.
Earlier this month, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Health Minister, Ghassan Hasbani, announced that over 6,000 medical cases are being treated for illnesses related to the trash crisis. Some “110 percent of [gastrointestinal] cancers are caused by drinking polluted water…[and] inhaling CO2 emissions is one of the leading causes of cancers and heart problems in Lebanon,” Hasbani said. “According to statistics from the Health Ministry, over 6,000 patients are receiving such cancer treatments.”
As incapacitating as the intrusion of Lebanon’s trash crisis has been for the majority of residents, a number of individuals are finding another use for the trash that has piled up on almost every street corner and under every bridge in sight. During last summer’s annual Beirut Design Week, recycled materials made an appearance at the festival for the second time since the trash crisis began.
The annual Beirut Design Week was established in 2012 as the largest design festival across the Middle East and North Africa. In the festival’s fifth edition, artists showcased a number of art pieces using recycled materials like construction waste and recycled plastic for an installation about borders. Paolo Sakr made biodegradable trays out of old coffee grounds and newspapers and the Green Glass Recycling Initiative used old glass bottles found in landfills to revive traditional Lebanese glassblowing.
As impressive as the artistic creations were, the significance in the presence of recycled materials at Design Week also indicates the community’s engagement at the heart of these recycling initiatives. Organizations like Recycle Lebanon, Recycle Beirut, and socio-political organization Beirut Madinti acted as providers of the materials used and for inspiration for the installations themselves.
Prior to the trash crisis in 2014, recycling-guru Ziad Abi Chaker opened a microbrewery called “Colonel” in the small coastal city of Batroun just north of Beirut. The walls of the building housing the brewery are made out of recycled wood crates and two million plastic bags. Chairs and tables are crafted of old telephone wires and the grass outside the brewery is planted with organic recycled fertilizer.
Getting Back On Its Feet
While the Lebanese people have been mobilizing and trying to find alternatives to the lack of initiative on the government’s part, the government itself has resorted, once again, to landfills as a solution to the trash crisis. Earlier this year, the Lebanese government announced its plans to expand the Costa Brava and Tripoli dumping sites and intentions to establish a recycling plant at the former site while upgrading sorting facilities in Amrusiya and Karantina. And while the government has called on its institutions to go so far to kill seagulls flocking near the airport rather than find a permanent fix to the trash crisis, the people of Lebanon are not deterred.
Without government assistance, civil society, artists, and businesses have managed to band together to provide a sustainable alternative to simply dumping or burning trash, as many others, the government included, have been doing. The Lebanese model of waste management is far from desirable or sustainable, since there is no formalized structure or large-scale institutional assistance in place. Whether or not they needed a crisis as intrusive and threatening as the trash crisis is, the Lebanese have shown that, with persistence, a city can find ways to address its own challenges simply through banding together and innovating.
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