Lebanon

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 — 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 — also home to the Presidential Palace, which has been empty for almost 18 months because of the country's political crisis — 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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