Beirut Garbage Crisis, When Bad Politics Begets Bad Ecology

When the landfill servicing Beirut closed, so did the garbage collection. Now the suburbs have been left quite literally holding the bag, and government solutions aren't coming.

Piled high in Beirut
Piled high in Beirut
Laure Stephan

BEIRUT â€" Eva Zaatari shows us pictures on her phone of the garbage piling up in the Baabda District, known for its tree-lined roads and opulent houses on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital. "The piles of trash are sometimes taken away," she says. "But others start appearing just a few days later."

Sami Chenaihi, another Baabda resident and an NGO volunteer, mentions the rats, the stench, the suffocating smell of burned garbage. A recent rash of storms and heavy rainfall made it all the more messier.

More than three months after Beirut's garbage crisis began, Baabda â€" also home to the Presidential Palace, which has been empty for almost 18 months because of the country's political crisis â€" is one of the capital's many suburbs that can't get rid of its trash.

In mid-July, the landfill that serviced Beirut closed. The government planned no solution, so Sukleen, the private company contracted to collect the garbage and whose contract was about to end, simply stopped its activities. The streets in the capital were instantly filled with trash, at the peak of summer heat.

Faced with anger from residents, the authorities asked Sukleen's garbage collectors to resume their wok in Beirut, but not in the suburbs. Suburban authorities were suddenly required to find their own solution while the government tried to figure out a new plan.

Some localities have managed to turn the corner without much damage, either by instituting sorting or by stocking the garbage. But no government funds have been distributed to the suburban authorities, which means that some municipalities are struggling to meet the costs, and don't have the space to create new landfills to help alleviate the crisis.

"The garbage crisis has driven people crazy," says Paul Abi Rached, president of the ecology NGO T.E.R.R.E. Liban. "We see town hall administrations burning their own garbage themselves. For more than 20 years, garbage operations were managed centrally, so localities don't have the financial resources to deal with it."

DIY trash collection

Ecology activists and residents, fearing that the garbage might simply be buried in the middle of the forest, have taken the situation into their own hands: they've established a parallel collection system.

Rita, a 50-year-old resident, smiles but is a bit ill at ease. To have her garbage removed, she's paying a man $10 a month. "Everybody does it here," she says. "Egyptians or Syrians are collecting our trash. There's no public collection anymore, no more dumpsters. Isn't that shameful?"

But where her garbage is ending up is anyone's guess.

"This is like sweeping the dirt under the rug," says Sami Chenaihi, who is calling for a responsible response. The NGO where he works, Offre-Joie, is campaigning to isolate the garbage accumulated in Greater Beirut and is trying to set an example.

Three times in October, in Baabda and its surroundings, young volunteers placed the garbage in thick bin bags after having reduced the older trash to a pulp. "It's simple and cheap. That way, we’re avoiding the proliferation of insects and rodents, as well as the contamination of our water," Chenaihi says. "This could be the only solution we have today, given that we've got nowhere else to store this garbage."

At the headquarters of T.E.R.R.E. Liban, workers are sorting non-organic waste that residents have brought. "The crisis awakened people's understanding,” says Eva Zaatari, a young mother who formed a group, Angry Moms in Action, that tries to convince households to sort their garbage and reduce waste. "We see our children getting sick more often than ever before. It's hard not to make the connection with the garbage that pollutes the air."

Is an end to this crisis in sight? The government has made little progress on a plan for Greater Beirut that it announced in September. And yet, the situation is urgent, as proven by the tens of thousands of tons of garbage collected by Sukleen and abandoned on a patch of land a stone's throw from the harbor.

The draft includes plans to introduce recycling laws over time. But it will be up to local authorities to pay for it. "Nothing’s done to encourage it," says Raja Noujaim, who coordinates the civil coalition against the government's plan. "The last few weeks have shown that very explicitly. Instead of helping Beirut's suburbs to sort their trash, the government has let each one come up with its own solution. It's a patchwork that winds up being detrimental to the environment."

But as the emergency drags on, plenty of lasting damage has already been done.

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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