SHEKKA, Lebanon: Small cardboard packages of medicine dropped into pits of fire Monday in the first stage of resolving the lingering problem of expired food and drugs, whose discovery startled the country early this year.
Workers at the Holcim cement factory in Shekka carried a ton of expired drugs to a towering metal furnace, placing one box of drugs every three minutes on a conveyer belt that dropped them hundreds of feet into a massive tube where they were incinerated at 2,000 degrees Celsius.
The incineration began the test phase of the government’s solution for disposing of over 1,000 tons of expired food and drugs.
Five tons of drugs will be burned at the factory over the next three days while an international inspection company monitors the emissions from the furnace, according to the agreement that formalizes the solution.
The plan to burn the drugs at the Shekka Holcim plant came after nearly a year of delayed negotiations over another proposal to burn the goods at concrete plants around the country.
Huge amounts of expired meat were discovered being relabeled and resold across the country at the beginning of the year, in a scandal that shocked the food industry. After a public outcry over food safety, more expired food was uncovered along with vast quantities of expired drugs.
Environment Ministry officials say there are now at least 400 tons of expired drugs and 700 tons of spoiled food sitting at refrigerated storage units across the country. The quantity of goods was too high to use the typical method of re-exporting them to another disposal site.
Burning, a practice used around the world, but rarely in Lebanon, was one of the only disposal alternatives.
Within the concrete company’s central emissions stack, which radiates heat and towers over the coastal skyline, a small monitoring kit of tubes and computers set up by risk control business APAVE takes readings from the furnace’s exhaust.
If the emissions are within safe levels, the incineration of the remaining drugs and food will commence.
Test results are expected to take two months and the rest of the disposal will take at least a further two months, said Jamil Bouharoun from Holcim.
Holcim is providing its facility free of charge for the government to dispose of the expired goods and government officials say the company’s factory will likely become the standard disposal site for the country because of the prohibitive cost of purchasing another disposal method.
The incineration of materials at the facility is conducted by way of “co-processing,” which uses some of the energy and materials from burning waste. The company uses co-processing for 12 percent of its thermal energy.
Bouharoun suggests that there is an important role for co-processing in Lebanon, citing statistics which indicate that over 150 tons of pharmaceutical waste is generated every year.
“Co-processing in cement kilns reduces the overall environmental impacts by replacing two sources of emissions [fossil fuel combustion in cement kilns and waste disposal in landfills or incinerators] with a single one,” Bouharoun said in a media statement.