BEIRUT: A new plan to recycle waste and close down a controversial landfill site in the costal town of Naameh will be presented to the Cabinet this week, Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk told The Daily Star.
The strategy, which includes waste sorting by municipalities, selling recyclables to local industry and composting organic material for use as fertilizer, will pave the way for the closure of the Naameh landfill by January 2015.
“We have a lot to do in the coming nine months until the Naameh landfill is closed,” Machnouk said in a wide-ranging interview that also touched on water scarcity, air pollution and the expansion of Lebanon’s nature reserves.
Machnouk, who plays a key role in a committee headed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam tasked with finding an alternative to the Naameh landfill, said solid waste management was one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the country.
The continuous expansion of the landfill and the resulting health hazards prompted a sit-in back in January led by environmental activists along the road leading to Naameh.
The protest led to a pileup of garbage throughout Beirut and a pledge by the government to shut down the site by January 2015.
Machnouk said the committee would present its alternative plan this week to the Cabinet.
The proposal would see local municipalities take on a greater role in sorting garbage on local grounds, separating recyclable material at the source and selling it to local industries.
For instance, Machnouk said, local industries use 150,000 tons of recycled paper a year and would be eager to purchase still more from the government.
The early sorting will allow the separation of organic waste, which can be recycled into fertilizer. Garbage will be converted into refuse-derived fuel, which can be used in cement factories.
He said such a plan would require families and consumers to play an active role in helping with recycling at the source.
Beyond waste management, Lebanon faces another crisis with the pollution of its rivers, a challenge worsened by recent water scarcity.
Machnouk said the seeping of pesticides into rivers was one of the major environmental hazards facing the country. The ministry is currently sampling the water in the Litani River to assess the degree of pollution that can be attributed to pesticides.
The pollution in Lebanon’s rivers poses a direct risk for consumers as the water is usually the source of private water providers who fill tanks at homes during outages.
Machnouk said the quality of the water offered by such providers was not monitored and could be contaminated by pollutants from rivers.
On water scarcity, Machnouk said Lebanon was facing a major problem that was reaching emergency level.
Lebanon has seen unusually low rainfall this year, at just 40 percent of the yearly average by the first week of April. The shortage has spurred calls for a national water strategy and a renewed push for conserving water.
“This problem calls for everybody to start sparing water,” Machnouk said. “You have to use water wisely. Have a three-minute shower, as they say, and try not to abuse the water and to use it intelligently.”
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that 40 percent of water pipes throughout Greater Beirut have leaks, according to Machnouk.
Although efforts are underway to repair them, “We will be losing water every time you furnish water to the city,” he said.
Machnouk said his ministry would propose an expansion of the number of rain-collecting dams in the country that can store rainwater for situations when water is scarce.
On air pollution, Machnouk said the ministry was in the process of gathering data on air quality from stations throughout the country.
Recent research into air quality has shown higher levels of pollutants, which are often linked to the use of diesel generators and car emissions, in Beirut than recommended by international health organizations.
But Machnouk said the greatest challenge was the presence of over 700 illegal dumping grounds throughout Lebanon where villages burn waste, polluting the air and contributing to carbon dioxide emissions.
Machnouk said the ministry would also empower local authorities to crack down on environmental offenses.
But he added that government stability was key to implementing environmental policy. Environmental laws are nonexistent in conflict areas in the country.
The ministry faces major financial constraints in carrying out environmental projects. Its budget is a meager $8 million per year, though it carries out projects worth about $70 million, covered by grants from international organizations such as the UNDP, World Bank and World Health Organization, as well as the European Union, among others.
That is partly because the ministry is relatively new, at 21 years old, and faces competition for funds with other, more established ministries.