Lebanon's Waste Warriors Fight the Rising Tide of Trash

Why you should care

Because Lebanon can’t take any more sh*t. 

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Imagine living in a house made largely of recycled material like tires, glass bottles and tin cans, with a dose of earth, clay, hay and rock. You produce your water through rain harvesting, your own electricity through photovoltaic panels and windmills, and your own food in a greenhouse.

In a remote Lebanese village called Baskinta, architect Nizar Haddad and his team are morphing that vision into reality through the Lifehaus Project. Their idea for the Middle East’s first low-cost, fully sustainable home fashioned from recycled material and ancestral techniques was catalyzed by Lebanon’s infamous waste crisis in 2015, which saw an entire sanitation plant shut down and garbage left to pile up prohibitively in the streets.

It is among a series of initiatives that engineers, architects, educational institutions and communities are taking to challenge the traditional shortsightedness that has marked Lebanon’s approach to waste management.

The municipality of Beit Mery has commissioned Cedar Environmental’s founder and CEO Ziad Abichaker to develop a sorting plant that separates organics from inorganics. The American University of Beirut is trying to set an example among educational institutions and keeps close tabs on all potential contaminants produced on its campus — from battery collection and asbestos disposal to radioactive waste management and water conservation.

We felt that we could no longer wait.

Nadine Mazloum, writer involved with developing affordable, off-the-grid accommodations

A major commercial building in downtown Beirut called M1 recently became the first in Lebanon to receive the coveted LEED Platinum rating for its comprehensive sustainability scheme. And a range of grassroots initiatives aimed at sustainable development in Lebanon and at pressuring the government to do more have sprung up in the aftermath of the waste debacle, hinting at a wider people’s movement. These are all still baby steps given the magnitude of Lebanon’s challenge but represent a definite awakening.

“We felt that we could no longer wait,” said Nadine Mazloum, a Lebanese-Australian journalist and blogger who, together with Haddad, helped develop the notion of affordable, off-the-grid living accommodations in Lebanon’s rural mountains.

Lebanon’s waste management crisis could have been predicted years in advance. The Naameh landfill to the south of Beirut, inaugurated in 1998 as part of an emergency plan to close the Burj Hammoud dump, accumulated eight times its capacity in waste and exceeded its lifespan by a dozen years. The government extended its existence without properly disposing of waste or addressing the issue of finding a new landfilling site.

Following its closure in the summer of 2015, government authorities lacked a contingency plan to deal with waste generated by residents. Solutions were proposed, but what panned out — the construction of two new landfills in the southern and northern regions of Beirut — is temporary and unsustainable. Lebanon is fraught with political gridlock, lack of transparency in regulations and an inconsistent enforcement of laws. And progress can be elusive.

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Cars drive past rubbish piled up next to a highway bridge at the eastern entrance to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Jan. 5, 2016.

Source JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty

That’s why some communities are taking matters into their own hands. At the Beit Mery separation plant, waste is recycled and composted, whereas untreatable materials are compressed under high temperature and formed into eco-boards for use in green walls and prefabricated houses, among other applications.

“Now it’s going to be a bag; later on it’s going to become a chair, or it’s going to become a vertical green wall,” says Abichaker. “Everything gets remanufactured. This is what we do.”

A multidisciplinary engineer who specializes in building municipal recycling facilities at the communal level, Abichaker operates 12 recycling plants. Most municipalities in Lebanon and the Middle East cannot afford to acquire recycling plants, so Abichaker sought loans from local banks to erect proprietary recycling facilities. Municipalities only pay for the service of recycling and composting in reasonable monthly installments. Everything is either recycled or repurposed into a second life. “People don’t believe that kind of change is possible. Hey, this is being done. It is feasible,” insists Abichaker.

At AUB, faculty and students are implementing a campaign to move the university toward zero waste by preventing trash generation and actively pursuing recycling, reducing and reusing. Farouk Merhebi, director of AUB’s Environmental Health, Safety and Risk Management department and an expert in municipal solid waste management, senses a growing interest in citizens to recycle.

“We feel it at AUB from staff bringing their own recyclables to AUB to give them to arcenciel,” Merhebi states, referring to a Lebanese NGO that participates in sustainable development.

Grassroots initiatives are emerging too. Recycle Lebanon serves as a hub of economic, societal and environmental issues and initiatives concerning sustainable development in Lebanon. The Waste Management Coalition aims to pressure the government to institute sustainable solutions for the yet unsolved trash problem.

The impact of these efforts is limited by a lack of government support. “We sometimes feel as though we — people seeking genuine change — are pulling in one direction while the government is pushing in the opposite direction,” said Mazloum. “When we look at decision makers pushing for archaic solutions like incinerators as a solution to the garbage crisis, it’s truly disheartening.”

But public sensitization can fill at least some of that void by making citizens feel accountable, suggests Merhebi. Mazloum remains hopeful that policymakers realize “before it’s too late the gravity of the situation and how important it is not to take time for granted.”

Till then, it is citizens’ initiatives that remain Lebanon’s best bet.

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