AIN IBL, Lebanon: A landfill in a south Lebanon village where illegal practices have forced residents to rally in protest is promising to become a model for environmentally friendly waste management, thanks to an invention developed by a Lebanese professor.
The controversial landfill acquired a device called the Rapid Pulse Carbonization, which was invented by Lebanese University Professor Jamil Rima. The unit transforms solid waste into carbon, which is considered a “clean alternative” to burying garbage and large-scale waste burning.
“The purpose of this machine is to turn all organic and solid [refuse, as well as] municipal, hospital and slaughterhouse waste, into carbon,” said Rima, whose invention is patented with the Industry Ministry.
A researcher of 41 years in chemistry, Rima developed the mechanism whereby waste is first vaporized inside the machine, leaving behind dry material, which is then heated to 400 degrees Celsius at 10 units of atmospheric pressure and subsequently moved to a “catalytic heat diffuser.”
“After that, we will be left with only carbon inside the machine ... the whole process takes 15 minutes,” he said. “There is no harm done to the environment and no bad odors emanate, therefore the landfill would be 100 percent environmentally friendly.”
Although the machine installed in the Ain Ibl landfill is not yet fully operational, the owner, Fares Ghostine, has high hopes that the new device will resolve waste management issues in Lebanon.
“We have been through difficult times [at the landfill] but my main goal was always to reach a point of zero dumping and that was the aim behind bringing in the new machine,” Ghostine said.
In August of 2011, the Ain Ibl Municipality approved the establishment of a landfill meant for three surrounding villages, on the condition that the site would abide by “acceptable environmental standards,” but that clause was soon violated.
“The municipality’s original agreement with the landfill [owner] was conditional and documented. We allowed the owner to operate a landfill on the condition that it meets necessary health and environmental standards,” Ain Ibl Mayor Farouq Diab told The Daily Star.
“The landfill was meant to collect garbage from a maximum of three villages including Ain Ibl, but it is now collecting trash from some 15 nearby [southern] villages,” he added, noting that the landfill started operating before obtaining a license from the Industry Ministry.
The landfill was supposed to amass and sort garbage from three villages on a daily basis given its limited capacity. In principle, the operator was expected to bury organic waste after fermentation and sell recyclable material.
But the landfill expanded its operations to include more than 10 villages along with with waste collected from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
Since then, local residents have complained of trash burning, bad odors and solid waste scattered around the landfill.
In response to growing pressure on the municipality to take action, the council decided to seek the advice of three environmental experts who examined the landfill.
The experts concluded that on a daily basis the landfill was collecting trash three times beyond its capacity, forcing employees to simply dump garbage on the ground without sorting, risking underground water pollution.
In one of the reports, a senior environmental consultant said 50 percent of organic material, glass and potentially recyclable material had been buried without sorting.
Another environmental consultant reported mismanagement on the part of the landfill operator. The expert noted that not all truckloads were registered in the logbook, hinting that the operator most likely aimed to conceal the exact volume of trash it admitted into the landfill.
One of the experts even noted in their report that a member of the municipal council had shares in the landfill project.
The experts also raised concerns regarding the fermentation machine which the operator purchased in March of last year in a bid to alleviate the demands on the landfill.
Human Environmental Association of Development President Maria Therese Seif, who has been following up on the case, told The Daily Star that the fermentation machine was probably a replica.
“There are five internationally known companies that manufacture fermentation machines ... and the one in [the Ain Ibl] landfill is from another source, which means it is not operating the way it should to produce the desired results,” she said, warning that air pollution could become a serious issue in the area if fermentation was not carried out properly.
Seif, who is also a member of the executive board of the Lebanese Environment Forum, accused both the municipality and the operator of the landfill of failing to submit a study detailing the facility’s impact on the environment, a review required by law.
Seif, along with two of the experts, also spoke out about the absence of the “geo-membrane” technique at the landfill, a method used to separate layers of buried garbage and sand and prevent them from penetrating into the underground layers and reaching subterranean water.
One of the consultants, however, played down the violations, saying the landfill operator was understaffed and that the fermentation machine would improve operations.
The Environment Ministry had sent a letter to the Industry Ministry in March saying the landfill had failed to meet “required environmental conditions,” and gave the operator one month to comply with the requirements.
“We did what was required of us. The issue is not in our hands anymore,” a source at the Environment Ministry said.
The Industry Ministry has the authority to shut down or suspend operations at the landfill. Former Industry Minister Vreij Sabounjian failed to provide any information about the site when contacted by The Daily Star.
One of the leading activists following up on the case said that local residents were not seeking to shut down the landfill but rather to put an end to the violations.
Ain Ibl Youth Club member Atallah Diab, who aired doubts about Ghostine’s credibility, blamed the municipality for failing to take a decision and suspending work at the landfill.
“The experience we have with the operator of the landfill is not encouraging because he has made several promises and never met any of them,” Atallah, who submitted a petition to the governor in the south to close the landfill, told The Daily Star. “His credibility is damaged and all he is doing now is toying with us.”
But Ghostine, in his defense, claimed he had been forced to collect trash from several other villages in order to cover the landfill’s costs.
“I asked the residents on several occasions to be patient with us ... I even asked the municipality for help to maintain the landfill,” he said.
He added that he would sort the trash with the new device provided by Rima so he could sell the recyclable material.
An environmental expert said that the whole issue with waste management in Lebanon was politicized because of “the huge cost of selling recyclable trash, which amounts to $123 per ton, above the global average.”
“So, there will never be a cheap, clean solution to waste in the country,” the expert said.