I took this photo about a month ago, well before the start of the current garbage crisis that has left piles of trash on Lebanon’s streets. The shot was taken from the highway in south Lebanon on our way back to Beirut after a gorgeous day at one of the country’s rare virgin beaches near Naqoura on the Palestine/Israel border.
We had been driving for about 15 minutes and approaching the Biblical city of Tyre when we saw what seemed to be a smoldering mountain the size of several football fields. Perplexed, I stopped at a nearby bakery to ask what was going on. When I got out of my car, the air was thick with putrid fumes, the taste on the tongue was enough to turn one’s stomach. I asked a few guys sitting outside in plastic chairs overlooking the dystopian scene what was going on. They told me this was all the garbage from nearby towns and that this fire had be burning something like eight years. Eight years, I exclaimed incredulously. They smiled at my surprise as if no one had bothered to ask about them about it before, as if this filth of impunity was completely normal.
How could anyone allow this to happen for so many years? Where was the municipality, I wondered. Where was all the money they collect from building permits and annual municipal taxes? How could it not be enough to come up with some basic solutions? How could these people live and work and breath this on a daily basis?
I didn’t have time to investigate further before the garbage crisis began a few weeks later in Beirut, lining entire blocks with piles of waste after a major landfill near a mountain village was closed following protests by local residents. This meant that garbage would no longer be exported to far away places–out of sight and out of mind–but that it would stay in the city, for everyone to smell, even the super wealthy and upper middle classes who are often insulated from national crises . The picture below is shot in the popular nightclub district of Mar Mikhael:
Now two weeks into the crisis as summer temperatures hit their peak, the trash is rotting and the stench is awful. It also means many people are finally waking up to a problem that has been ongoing for decades: rampant dumping across Lebanon’s countryside and a disgraceful lack of recycling in major towns and cities that produce most of the waste. But could that be changing?
The garbage debate, once pushed off to poor or rural places, is now a daily conversation in the city and people are so angry that they are beginning to name and shame the country’s top leaders, with memes like this going viral on social media:
Many rightly pointed out that putting the politicians faces on the bodies of the trash workers was an insult to the poor largely migrant Syrian and South Asian men who pick up garbage in this city. There have also been gifs, listicles and even a hilarious music video of a woman dancing to the disco classic Saturday Night Fever near the mounds of waste. But there has also been real action on the ground.
Several municipalities across the country have begun taking matters into their own hands, ending a reliance on the national garbage company, Sukleen–which has been accused of charging some of the world’s highest trash collection rates while doing very little recycling. Many municipalities are now urging residents to do so on their own and offering weekly pick up services that were previously non-existent. Here is one notice from a village in mount Lebanon. that is now collecting bags of recyclables twice per week. Several other villages doing this are listed here.
Many of the country’s little-known existing recycling companies are also finally getting some of the attention they deserve, increasingly hailed as national heroes. Ziad Abi Chaker, One of Lebanon’s leading garbage entrepreneurs, who develops construction materials and entire structures out of recycled plastics, has now set up mobile recycling plants at some of the urban dump sites, such as this one near the mounds of garbage piling up in the coastal city of Zouk:
Grassroots and online organizing have also taken shape. A Facebook group called “You Stink” (in reference to the country’s ruling politicians) has already garnered 16, 000 likes and is planning a major protestthis Saturday. It has also provided a space for citizens to document illegal dumping and a crowd-funding campaign has been set up to support the protest and lobbying effort, raising 200 percent of its goal in just two days. Even Hezbollah has endorsed recycling and is now proposing decentralized waste solutions.
Yes it stinks. Yes illegal dumping is rampant. Yes some are burning garbage and it is suffocating and it is depressing. But the truth is, this has always been going on in Lebanon’s far away villages, rural valleys and marginalized costal areas since the end of the Lebanese war. The problem has largely been ignored and pushed away for decades. Perhaps part of the solution lies in bringing it closer to people’s noses, forcing those with the means to start taking it seriously and actually do something about it.
UPDATE: Residents say some municipalities have been dumping their waste in valleys despite claims that they are recycling. However activists have been documenting and challenging this, while informal, entrepreneur-led recycling efforts continue. See this update for more details.