“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?
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.
I don’t usually do lists, but with all the awful news I have been covering lately about demolitions and people getting beaten up, I thought I’d lighten up a little this holiday season. So here are some of the strangest Christmas displays I have seen around town. Some are actually kind of cool, others are completely awful, but all are pretty unconventional.
1.) Suspended East European dancers:
Lebanon loves East European dancers. They fill our variety television shows, and now they are getting us into the spirit of giving… with skin tight outfits. Did I mention that they dance in two glass balls suspended from the mall’s roof?
The guy at the sunglass hut seems thankful:
2.) Flying trees
Lebanon’s newest mall, Beirut City Center, wants a piece of the competition.
Not only are these plastic trees airborne, they also double as… snowflakes?
3. Merry Christmas and F*** u from St. Georges:
Tis the season to fight the power.
Many of you know the long-standing battle between Beirut’s oldest hotel and the country’s largest company, Solidere. The St. Georges owner has been fighting the real estate giant for several years, arguing that Solidere is using its political connections to prevent him from reopening his famous hotel. (You can read more about the land conflict in an Al Jazeera piece I wrote last year. )
The St. Georges “Stop Solidere” sign has been up for at least 6 years, serving as the most visible form of resistance toward the multibillion dollar company. But this is the first time I’ve seen it decorated for the holidays.
4.) Almaza tree
Lebanon’s best known brew works great for a tree the whole family can enjoy.
5. Junior Mafia
Who doesn’t love Lebanese mobsters weaving in and out of traffic with their $200,000 sports cars? Now their children can learn to show off at a very earlier age. They even offer black-tinted windows for all the junior VIPs. Quick, somebody sell them low number vanity plates to make this gift perfect.
This ABC kiosk says it all really.
7.) Christmas tank
Nothing says Christmas like a Vietnam-era Armored Personnel Carrier parked outside a shopping mall.
Checking to see who has been naughty or nice with a 50 caliber machine gun?
8.) Year round tree
Call it municipal incompetence or call it endless holiday spirit. When I noticed the Naccache neighborhood still had its 2013 tree up last September, I realized it probably wouldn’t be coming down in any time soon.
9.) Fake snow flake machine
If flying trees were not enough (see number 2) City Center mall is also making it rain with fake flakes, which fall gracefully on its 5 story tree:
10.) LAU: Blinded by the light
The Lebanese American University wants to make sure you know what time of year it is. In fact, they are recreating the light of the stars that led the three wise men to baby Jesus. But they would probably need sunglasses if they stumbled onto LAU campus today.
Despite the rampant and strange consumerist displays, it wouldn’t be right to ignore many folks in Lebanon that have truly embraced the sprit of giving this season.
Such as the kids who volunteered with the soup kitchen Food Blessed, who were taking donations at a Badaro Christmas fair:
A lot of bottles will be piling up on the streets tonight. Soon they will be in landfills or riverbeds, adding to the mountains of garbage that are destroying our environment. But what if the bottles (71 million per year) went to the right place? What if the they could be reused to help support Lebanon’s endangered glass blowing industry–one of the oldest trades (think Phoenician) that the country has ever known? And what if you could do something about this?
The good news is you can. You can help support this new project by simply sharing the crowd funding campaign, donating a few dollars or buying your holiday gifts online from Lebanese artisan glass blowers. The money will go toward purchasing a glass recycling truck and glass recycling bins to be placed around Beirut.
It’s called the Green Glass Recycling Initiative Lebanon (watch the video above) and it’s being spearheaded by Environmental Engineer Ziad Abichaker. His projects have already had a significant impact on Lebanon’s growing recycling industry. These include existing programs that process waste at several towns in Lebanon, used to produce fertilizer and building materials, such as those used to construct the country’s first recycled building and brewery, which I covered earlier this year.
Give this initiative some thought next time you are throwing away bottles or complaining about pollution in Lebanon.
There is less than one week left to support this campaign. According to an email from Ziad, they have received $18,000 in offline contributions, in addition to those on the Indiegogo site, leaving them just $3,270 short of their goal.
A new microbrewery has opened in Batroun, a picturesque small town on the Lebanese coast. Even more cool is that the brewery building is built of recycled material: walls made of recycled wood crates and melted down plastic turned into wall panels– the equivalent of 2 million plastic bags. It is a technology pioneered by the local firm Cedar Environmental, headed by Lebanese engineer Ziad Abichaker. Plus tables made of old telephone wire spools, grass planted with organic recycled fertilizer. The launch party is just getting started, here are some pics. Stay tuned for my upcoming piece in Jazeera Airways inflight magazine about Ziad’s inspiring work.
The new beer is called Colonel. A restaurant is also set to open in the space.