“I didn’t say incinerators, I said ‘high technology,'” Beirut’s mayor Jamal Itani told LBC at a recent waste disposal conference. “We are going to start the pre-qualification before the end of the year…In terms of the land, I have two solutions but I prefer not to talk about it now so the criticism doesn’t start…”
The conference featured European guest speakers including the mayor of Copenhagen who claimed that most of his city’s garbage was recycled. But what does this mean for Beirut, what is “high technology” incineration exactly, what are the effects on public health and why is the mayor not disclosing the location or the actual technology being considered for fear of criticism?
According to LBC, an incineration plant would cost over $100 million and require huge amounts of space and deep mines for dumping of the byproducts. Intrepid reporter Sobhiya Najjar asks: “How can Beirut plan “high technology” incineration plant if it it cannot even sort its garbage at the source?
The eight-month old battle between the Lebanese state and anti-corruption activists has taken many forms: from street protests and occupying government buildings–met with tear gas and water cannons– to music videos, egging official motorcades, even rolling out a medieval catapult to hurl trash bags at the prime minister’s office. But now it has become a war of drones.
Responding to a Ministry of Tourism drone video that highlights Lebanon’s natural beauty, activists with the #YouStink movement released a more realistic drone video revealing the state of garbage mountains across the country, an environmental and public health disaster–and massive political failure– the Lebanese state would rather hide.
You can read more about the crisis, and the very creative forms of activism it has sparked, in my latest piece for The Guardian, here.
The Ministry of Tourism has threatened to sue the activists for using their logo and “harming Lebanon’s image”.
What do you think?
Here is the ministry video:
Here is the YouStink video:
And here’s a comparative video made by the skilled editors at The Guardian to go with my piece:
On Saturday at 4PM (tomorrow) YouStink have announced a major protest march from Sassine Square to Riad Al Solh, near Parliament. In their latest press release, delivered on national television using surgical masks, activists are upping the ante by handing the state a “final ultimatum:” “We will not yield to your extortion and remain silent on your failure… You have until Saturday to find a solution for this disaster.”
It is not clear how or if the ministry and activists will come through on their latest threats. Over 250 protesters have been jailed or detained since protests began but lawyers representing the activists say all have been released, and many shown in videos of celebrations held outside police stations, also posted on Facebook.
Hours ahead of tomorrow’s protest, the government has just made an emergency announcement:
Has the pressure of activism and the worldwide circulation of their garbage drone videos (now nearing one million views) motivated the government to action? Is this a tactic to reduce the crowds at tomorrow’s protest? Activists have already warned that the dumps mentioned above are substandard or overcapacity. Will this latest government decision have any impact on the protestors’ demands and the environmental disaster?
UPDATE 2 (13/3/16)
After a long day of demonstrations filling the streets downtown, activists have called on citizens to boycott work and school beginning on Monday until the sanitation crisis is resolved. As of early Sunday, some were camped out in front of police lines facing the prime minister’s office. Follow the Beirut Report Facebook page for the latest updates, images and videos from the protests.
Many have documented the piles being burned at night, sending suffocating fumes into the skies: “My lungs are suffering,” a young person living nearby one dump told me.
Another tragic example is the picturesque mountain town of Beit Mery, as seen in this widely shared Facebook post:
It remains unclear if this huge amount of waste here is generated solely by the Beit Mery municipality or if other towns and neighborhoods in Beirut are contributing. Could such dumping be happening without the municipality’s consent? And why would they allow it?
As I told CNN in an interview last week, the only silver lining to this crisis seems to be the renewed and energized national conversation about recycling and waste management–following years of neglect–and the creation of a new breed of activism around it. The group “Tol3at Ri7itkom” ( You Stink) has been holding meetings and organizing protests, as documented by blogger Hassan Chamoun, who has been extensively covering their work:
With over 22,000 likes in the space of a couple of weeks, the “You Stink” campaign’s popular Facebook page allows citizens to post videos documenting illegal dumping across the country:
They have even launched a few stunts, such as dumping garbage bags at ministers’ front doorsteps:
They have used a crowd-funding campaign and even put their protest budget online, unlike most of Lebanon’s non-transparent government institutions.
Others are getting their hands dirty and literally picking up the mess, as we have seen with the continued work of recycling entrepreneur Ziad Abi Chaker. His team managed to process nearly 300 cubic meters in one day by bringing recycling machines to a major pile in the town of Zouk:
As always, many others in Lebanon have become depressed, languishing in cynicism or despair, which have become the trademark coping mechanisms for dealing with crisis after crisis in this country. Indeed, it takes a lot of strength and dedication to stay motivated and get things done in Lebanon, but it can also be rewarding. I think Ziad said it best when he wrote:
“In times of crisis, the number one killer is inertia…No matter how big the task, have the courage to take the first step and the discipline to keep at it one step after the other. Once you have taken your tenth step you will realize this is not as daunting as you imagined and it’s rather pleasant to be surmounting the obstacles.”
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.
As the video above states, a new initiative is finally allowing everyone to recycle in Lebanon. Beginning tomorrow, you can sort all plastics and metals in blue bags and put all paper and perishables in black bags.
Trucks will start picking up the blue bags tomorrow. The black bags will go to the landfill, where the paper and the waste can biodegrade.
The hope is that this streamlined initiative– which is being spearheaded by Lebanese recycling guru Ziad Abi Chaker– will take on a life of its own, by encouraging dumpster divers (the poor folks that dig through our garbage every night) to also participate. By sorting your own garbage in this simple way, you can encourage them and help them become more efficient and productive.
Blue bags (or bags of any color other than black) = all types of metal and plastics (bottles, cans, plastic bags, plastic containers)
Black bags = all types of paper (cardboard, newspaper) and all other perishable waste (food).
I have been taking my recycling to Ziad for the past several months, sorting them into plastics, bottles and paper:
But now he has simplified the process to just two types of recycling to encourage mass participation by making use of existing garbage scavenger networks– meaning you won’t have to physically transport the waste yourself.
This is also an emergency reaction to Lebanon’s current garbage crisis, with a shortage of landfills and much feuding in parliament, which has issued one temporary solution after another. Ideally, Ziad says one day we’ll get to a stage where mass sorting of paper will be an option. But in the current crisis, with waste piling up on streets, combining paper and perishables will help reduce smells.
Will it work? This probably depends on you. The more the idea catches on, the more it is likely to succeed.
The municipality of a certain village was forced to call the fire department this week for a fire lit by its own staff. Luckily the firefighters were able to put it out before the blaze spread to the surrounding brush and caught half the mountainside on fire.
It all started when a member of the municipal police–who was supervising road works– decided to start a fire to clear the brush.
“We started the fire,” the policeman said nonchalantly with a cigar in hand, when asked. “It’s nothing,” he added as he continued to supervise roadworks, with the firetruck in the background.
The policeman–who wasn’t wearing any uniform–went on to blame the neighbors for the fire he started. “It’s their fault,” he added. “They let all the brush grow–they throw the garbage from their gardens here.”
When asked why the municipality doesn’t bring a truck to clear the brush instead of burning it–so as to prevent a big fire and a column of smoke in the air polluting the entire neighborhood–he smiled. “If you think this is a big fire, what are you going to say when you see a real big fire?”
Thanks to the boys at the fire department and the speed of their response, we didn’t get to see one. “This happens all the time,” the senior fireman said shaking his head, when asked if his mens’ time is often wasted by people setting their own fires to “clear garbage.”
We were also lucky that it wasn’t a windy day. Otherwise the flames could have easily spread to the dense green hillside just behind it, which is full of bone dry shrubs and connected to a beautiful pine forest in the valley.
A few weeks ago, Beirut was in the international headlines due to a shooting incident. But what many people don’t know is on the same day there was a positive transformation happening in another part of the city.
A group of designers, urbanists and activists had come together to help one community beautify its streets–transforming a wall appropriated by political parties and violent slogans:
Into a fresh canvas ready for a colorful mural:
The project is called the Khodr Neighborhood Initiative and also saw activists help residents organize a campaign to clean their streets and encourage recycling, with workshops and entertainment for children:
The initiative was spearheaded by Public Interest Design Levant, a new collaboration between young designers, architects, urban planners and NGOs to encourage responsible citizenship, sustainable development and community participation. Interestingly a pillar of the group’s working framework is a “human-centered approach” listening closely to community members to assess needs while taking into consideration environmental, social and cultural issues. It’s a far cry from the approach of the Beirut Municipality, which operates largely without public consultation or transparency in projects that have torn down heritage and green spaces in favor of highways, contractors and real estate developers.
Public Interest Design Levant is planning a lot more work in the Khodr neighborhood, which is located near the port of Beirut, between the Sleep Comfort headquarters and Karantina. The plan is also to encourage sustainable transport with bike friendly streets among other citizen-centric initiatives.
They are always looking for volunteers so subscribe to their Facebook page for updates. The next event is coming up next week– a bicycle festival known as Baskil.
The all-ages festival starts on Wednesday 23rd and goes through Sunday the 27th. See a list of events here, including competitions and a bike tour around the city.
When I got in a cab after landing in Beirut this weekend, my first question to the driver was about Sukleen, Lebanon’s biggest and most controversial garbage company. Trash had been building up for days when I left Lebanon to attend a week-long Arab bloggers conference in Jordan (more on that soon.)
Apparently the crisis had been resolved when I was in the air, as a Sukleen truck was making the rounds on the way home from the airport. The driver said the politically-connected firm, which charges one of the world’s most expensive garbage collection rates, was inherently corrupt and had negotiated a deal to continue dumping at a hazardous site. This despite health concerns from local residents who had blocked the roads, causing the waste pile-up.
But according to The Daily Star, the protest was violently broken up by a police raid, and at least one activist was detained. According to Al Akhbar, the landfill site, just south of the capital at Naameh, was designed to receive 2 million tons of waste over 10 years, but has instead received over 15 million tons over 15 years. Neither publication explained why this has happened or named any officials responsible for the failure. I asked the driver if Sukleen had anything to say for themselves, but he said the garbage company had not been questioned or even appeared in a single newspaper or television report he had seen.
I then asked the driver about other news I missed while away: a third car bomb in South Beirut, claimed by Al Nusra Front; it was preceded by a bomb claimed by the Islamist State of Syria and Iraq and a blast before that claimed by Abdullah Azzam Brigades. So how could a neighborhood patrolled by Lebanon’s most powerful organization–Hezbollah–get struck by three car bombs, by three different groups all in the space of a few weeks?
“The car bombs are all made in the Bourj Al Barajneh,” he said, in a reference to a Palestinian camp near south Beirut. Because of its close proximity to the neighborhood, Hezbollah was simply not able to monitor every car or road coming out of the camp into the adjoining neighborhood, the driver said.
He then asked if I wanted to know these Islamist terrorists or “takfireen” in Syria were up to. While driving on the highway, he worriedly scrolled through videos on his phone and then handed it to me. “It’s funny,” he said, as I watched a group of six or seven masked men surround a young man on his knees, accusing him of drinking and supporting the regime. Without warning the man’s head is sliced off from the back with a machete. There is no date on the video and it’s impossible to know if it was recent or even shot in Syria.
“You see these animals,” the driver said, half smiling. “You see what they do?” Noticing the appalled look on my face he added: “That’s nothing, that’s a nice one. There are much worse videos, like where people are eaten. My friends send me one every week on WhatsApp,” he explained nonchalantly, referencing a chat application.
It is such gruesome videos that have been used to justify Hezbollah’s war in Syria to its supporters. How could Hezbollah stand by as such groups threaten to take over the country? The fear is set to intensify with a new announcement from Al Nusra that all Shia populated neighborhoods are targets as well as an Al Qaeda call for more militant recruits in Lebanon and army defections. But lost in this narrative is the fact that these groups also pose a threat to Syrians fighting the regime, which Hezbollah continues to support, despite it’s similar levels of inhuman violence and brutality.
I got out of the cab realizing the monumental work ahead for myself or any journalist or activist in this country. From Sukleen to Syria, information is scarce and worried citizens are increasingly vulnerable to fear-mongering, unverified stories and real, recurring violence.
This doomsday-like cloud loomed ahead as we drove through Saida (Sidon) today.
According to this super short report in the Daily Star, it was a plastics factory that caught fire, but there were few other details, except that the plant was reportedly owned by Yehya Hariri. It wasn’t clear if there was any relation to the powerful Hariri family, also from Saida.
This ownership detail was curiously not included in the even smaller articles on the blaze that appeared in popular news sites Naharnet and Now Lebanon, which only devoted three sentences to the story.
And yet the fire over Lebanon’s third largest city could be seen for miles:
Seems a news event like this might warrant more attention, considering the amount of toxins that have been released into the sky.
It’s also unclear if the fire affected the city’s massive garbage dump, which has frequently ignited in the past.
With so many environmental disasters befalling Saida, it’s hard to believe so many big politicians live here.
I wonder if this new guy running for office will do anything about it:
The cloud lingered for miles, putting a damper on this beautiful day…
….and this great interfaith billboard with sheikhs and priests high fiving one another: