BEIRUT: After a night of mass protests in Beirut, the city’s streets were littered with broken glass, piles of burned wood, tear gas canisters and other trash.
Within hours, volunteers sprang into action, wielding brooms, gloves and trash bags.
It started as an organic effort by individuals and small groups, like Joseph Haddad, 20, who came to clean the streets in Saifi near Martyrs’ Square with his father and sister at 7 a.m. Saturday.
“We saw the news ... people breaking glass and shops, so we said, ‘We’re gonna wake up tomorrow and clean up our streets,’” Haddad said.
By the fourth day of the protests Sunday, the initially ad hoc cleanup efforts had grown into a well-organized response system, with blue trash bags appearing at strategic locations around the Downtown protest area and volunteers carefully sorting recyclable and nonrecyclable trash and dropping it off with groups like Recycle Beirut and Arcenciel.
Ramy Nasser, one of a group of cousins coordinating trash cleanup efforts out of a tent at Martyrs Square, said it started as an individual effort.
“We started out by cleaning Riad al-Solh Square after all the damage that was done [on the first night],” he said. “We segregated all the trash, recyclables, regular trash and, of course, the police canisters and stuff.”
They went on to clean Martyrs’ Square and then set up the tent to better organize the efforts. Now, Nasser said, they are coordinating more than 20 volunteers.
“The government - now, I don’t know what they’re doing, but we have to fill the gap, we have to do something, and we can do something,” he said.
Other volunteers expressed a similar view that private citizens had to step up to do the government’s job.
Monawar Aboushi and her friends were at work on the streets Sunday morning, sorting out plastic and dividing the trash between black and blue trash bags.
Aboushi had words for the Environment Ministry: “We’re doing your job ... and I’m happy to clean up my country if no one else will.”
Recycle Lebanon, an NGO that was formed during the 2015 garbage crisis and associated protests, has been coordinating various volunteer cleanup efforts, giving support in logistics and coordinating trash pickups.
Joslin Kehdy, founder of Recycle Lebanon, said that the group was working now to coordinate communication between volunteer groups in different locations and to develop a longer-term plan for waste management, including setting up trash bins at the protest sites, in case the demonstrations continue through the week to come and potentially longer.
Kehdy said awareness about and infrastructure for recycling had improved greatly since the time of the garbage protests.
“The beautiful part is that between 2015 and today those alternatives are on the ground - they’re here,” she said. “People aren’t hoping for something that hasn’t been established.”
She added that seeing the agency protesters were taking in setting up the cleanup efforts gave her hope.
“These [efforts] are all across Lebanon,” she said.
“Any individual, as they would clean their house, they are cleaning the streets, they are cleaning their country. It’s not merely just picking up garbage or recycling garbage but showing this is a real conscious effort of society.” - Additional reporting by Ghada Alsharif and Sahar Houri