Trash Piles Up as Lebanon Waits for an Answer
City of Beirut delays talk of incinerators – to the approval of residents – while some claim that country’s waste management is befouled by corruption
The Beirut Municipal Council recently delayed talks on installing incinerators to handle the city’s trash as hundreds of protestors, including politicians, took to the streets.
The council’s decision underscores a series of failures by the national government to effectively deal with a widespread trash crisis, a problem that has been piling up for years. In the meantime, robust corruption among legislators and private companies responsible for trash disposal is seen as stymieing a successful solution.
Nevertheless, many residents of Beirut are cheering the council’s decision to hold off talks on plans to build incinerators.
“Allowing incinerators crosses a red line,” Joslin Kehdy, founder of the non-governmental organization Recycle Lebanon, told The Media Line. “It’s a matter of health; it’s a matter of the environment; it’s a matter of reproductive rights.”
Kehdy points to global studies that indicate birth rates are lower in areas around incinerators. She also says that Lebanon has the highest rate of lung cancer in all of West Asia, which she attributes, in part, to pollution.
Samar Khalil, an environmental management specialist and member of the Waste Management Coalition in Lebanon, explained to The Media Line that incinerators are dangerous because hazardous material is burned alongside regular trash, leading to emissions and ash that must be disposed of.
Lebanon, she said, does not have the technology to properly treat the ash, so it would have to be exported. The problem is compounded by the country’s lax attitude toward environmental standards, she added.
“We don’t have the proper legal framework to be able to monitor and control incinerators, and we have very bad enforcement of laws and regulations, especially the environmental ones,” Khalil said. “An incinerator would end up being a major source of pollution in the country.”
In addition to health problems, incineration is also expensive. Khalil says the cost of disposing waste at a well-maintained incinerator is between $180 and $200 dollars per ton.
“I don’t think the Lebanese people can afford such a cost,” she told The Media Line.
Recycle Lebanon’s Kehdy argues that incinerators will not help alleviate the crisis.
“There is no reason to adopt incineration plans when producers already are changing the packing that would go into incinerators,” she said.
Most of Lebanon’s waste is organic, which Kehdy says amounts to between 60 and 65 percent of the country’s trash, and does need to be incinerated.
Khalil told The Media Line: “If you have more than 50% organic waste and more than 15% inert [non-decomposable] waste, incineration is not a good solution for you. This is the case of Lebanon.”
Organic waste can be compostable, but Lebanon has not invested in the technology and infrastructure to make this happen. Most organic waste is not separated from the rest of the trash. As a result, the compost generated is unusable and often ends up in a landfill.
Khalil argues that countries comparable to Lebanon do not use incineration.
“Usually, countries with [a] similar GDP per capita go more into landfilling, and they work on the upper level of waste management priority,” she said.
She says Lebanon has 941 garbage dumps and more than 12 mechanical biological treatment plants, adding that the waste management system is largely privatized and unpopular.
“Most of the landfills and private waste facilities are operated by the private sector, and they are doing a very bad job,” Khalil said.
However, both government and private sector mismanagement play a major role in the seemingly endless garbage problem.
“Nobody is doing anything because of corruption,” she told The Media Line.
Still, she is unsure whether a public system would be better.
“I don’t know which is better because anything that is managed by the government is managed badly, and the private sector like we have here is mainly owned by politicians as well,” Khalil said. “The current crisis [financially] benefits… some politicians, [who have an incentive to] extend the problem over a long period of time.”
The Lebanese Ministry of Environment and the Beirut Municipal Council did not respond to The Media Line’s multiple requests for comment.
According to Khalil, the government has no concrete plans for better separating trash and handling organic waste.
“[Waste separation] still is in the planning stages. The government is working slowly and we are still dumping 90% of our waste in either open dumps or landfills, and this is really pathetic,” Khalil said.
Both Khalil and Kehdy agree that sorting trash, minimizing waste and investing in infrastructure would help alleviate the country’s crisis. Khalil also advocates for the use of economic inducements to change behaviors.
“You should give private companies an incentive so that they reduce the amount of dumping and work more on recycling and recovery of the waste,” she said. “If you pay them for the [amount of] waste they are dumping, they end up dumping everything, which is happening now.”
Kehdy is a strong proponent of a circular economy in which items are utilized efficiently in order to reduce the amount that is thrown out. She believes that by fundamentally changing how recycling facilities function in Lebanon, they could become part of such a system.
“We need to reframe what a recycling station is,” Kehdy told The Media Line. “We need a 1,000-foot warehouse across municipalities that addresses separating, composting, recycling and repair.”
She envisions a recycling center that is open to the public. People could have broken items repaired and be able to buy products that have been fixed. There would also be a community garden, and members of the community could take classes to “unlearn” wasteful habits.
“Harnessing the circular economy: that’s the key to solving the trash crisis,” Kehdy said.
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)