BEIRUT: Fifi Kallab of Byblos Ecologia has been campaigning for improvements in Lebanon’s waste management system since the 1980s. She sighs as she recounts years of failed attempts to push the government to adopt policies that would arrest the country’s slide into environmental disaster.
“The government has no strategy [for] confronting the current waste problem,” says Kallab. “They push it to the back of their minds and agenda. They simply ignore the problem.”
In Lebanon, responsibility for waste management is assigned to municipalities. But few municipalities are equipped with sorting facilities and recycling units, and where units do exist most have ceased to function due to a lack of funding or technical expertise.
Consequently, there are over 700 illegal and unsafe dump sites in the country, according to a 2010 report by the Italian Coordination Office in Beirut. It is estimated that 40 percent of garbage is consigned to such makeshift dumps, with a further 50 percent disposed of in legal but generally unsanitary landfills. A mere 10 percent of the country’s waste is recycled.
“The main problem with the current municipal waste management system is that there is no legislation [governing] it,” observes an exasperated Wael Hmaidan, board member of environmental NGO IndyAct.
“Lebanon is one of the few countries in the world that have no legislation,” he says. “Correspondingly, the system is different from one area to another, with no real monitoring or accountability.”
Hmaidan emphasizes that since there is no accountability, cleaning contractors such as Sukleen and Sukomi, both part of the Averda group responsible for waste management in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, have little incentive to improve their recycling and composting efforts.
“Most of Lebanon’s municipalities dump waste randomly around the country,” laments Hmaidan.
But some people, such as Ziad Abichaker, founder of Cedar Environmental, remain unconvinced that legislation to regulate waste management would ameliorate the situation.
Abichaker argues that enforcing the relevant laws would be fraught with difficulty: “Accountability means introducing measures to tackle corruption, and there is a lot of corruption. A lot of people, influential people, could go to jail.”
Cedar Environmental aspires to provide 100 percent environmentally safe treatment of municipal solid waste, avoiding incineration and landfilling. The company currently operates 11 waste treatment plants across the country, boasts the capacity to process over 50,000 tons of waste annually, and produces an organically certified compost called Vieverte.
But according to Abichaker, in its quest to expand its operations, Cedar Environmental continues to be beset by obstacles at every turn. He claims that this is the case even though the waste management services offered by the company are better for the environment and cheaper than current methods.
“Unless you are politically affiliated,” says Abichaker, “it is tough to establish and expand a business.”
“The only times we have been able to build plants are in situations when municipalities have no choice because they are running out of space to land-fill,” he adds.
Despite the fact that Sukleen and Sukomi are paid with public funds, the terms of the contract between their owner and the government remain secret. An initial five-year contract was signed with Averda in 1995 for collection and sweeping by Sukleen, and two contracts were signed with Averda in 1998 for composting and landfilling by Sukomi.
In 2010, March 8 ministers together with those close to President Michel Sleiman voted against renewing the Averda contract unless the terms of the company’s agreement with the government were disclosed to the Cabinet.
Yet despite claims that other companies could do the job for half the price and should be allowed to enter a bidding process, Averda’s contract was renewed. Saad Hariri, who was prime minister at the time, argued it was too late to look for alternatives, as Sukleen’s contract had already expired.
“The problem is not Sukleen but the initial contract between Sukleen and the government,” states Kallab, who claims Sukleen is paid around $135 for every ton of rubbish collected. He maintains that the cost should be closer to $50.
“Why were they paid so much for garbage disposal in the first place?” Kallab asks, adding that if the government contracted with other companies whose services proved subpar, the country could always revert to Sukleen.
Abichaker says that by failing to establish viable alternatives to the current waste management system, the government is providing Averda with leverage when it comes to negotiating new contracts.
“When the current Sukleen and Sukomi contracts run out this could be a real crisis,” Abichaker warns.
“They could be in a position to say either you pay us the same or we are not picking up the rubbish. It could be the Naples situation all over again,” he says, referring to the Naples waste management crisis which peaked in the summer of 2008 and remains largely unresolved.
Abichaker and Kallab also agree that foreign aid and investment in the waste management system can be misguided, as donor countries and investors often fail to take into account infrastructural and economic constraints.
“Wastewater treatment is a prime example,” says Kallab. “There was huge foreign investment to build the plants, but they haven’t even been connected to the sewage system.”
Abichaker points out that the landscape is littered with the carcasses of such failed projects.
“In addition to the wastewater debacle, there is also the example of the anaerobic digestion plant in Sidon,” Abichaker points out. “It cost $30 million to build and they can’t even get 1 kilo of compost or 1 liter of bio-gas out of it. It’s been there since 1999 and they can’t even use it.”
Incineration is another problem. Recently, residents of the northern coastal town of Shekka protested following reports that Environment Minister Nazim Khoury would sign a request by the municipality to operate an incinerator for household and medical waste.
Earlier, Khoury granted permission to the Shekka municipality to operate the incinerator on a trial basis, despite its emission of carcinogenic dioxins and toxic ash in an area already polluted by local cement factories.
A report by the Directorate-General of the Environment Ministry highlighted administrative irregularities in the Shekka municipal council’s decision to buy the incinerator.
Both Abichaker and Kallab oppose incineration, as does the Zero Waste Coalition in Lebanon, a group of more than 80 NGOs including aforementioned IndyAct.
“Incinerators have no economic or environmental benefits,” argues Hmaidan. “The amount of energy they produce is negligible, but incineration companies use this argument to market their technology.”
Abichaker seconds Hmaidan’s argument, and adds: “Even the most advanced societies are moving away from incineration. Regardless of its effect on the environment, we do not have the technical culture or financial resources for it to work. It’s as naive as thinking you can implement democracy overnight in Iraq.”