Lebanon is drowning in its own trash. Sprawling rubbish has covered roadsides, beaches, city neighborhoods, and villages by the tons since 2015. Startling video images in September showed a river of garbage flowing through the streets of Beirut after a heavy rain. The situation has become so bad that it is posing an existential public health and environmental danger beyond the borders of the country.
Lebanon’s failure to clean up its garbage is now threatening the Mediterranean Sea, angering the littoral European countries that fear the pollution of the Sea worsening from this Middle Eastern nation’s uncontrolled trash disposal and associated leaching of toxic heavy metals and chemicals. Lebanese fishermen are catching more plastics than fish from the sea, attributing the smaller catch to fish dying from pollution and leaving the polluted areas for deeper waters.
The garbage crisis did not emerge overnight. It is the result of decades of poor government planning, mismanagement, corruption, funding shortages, rising costs, misplaced priorities, political gridlock, overuse of landfills, and a lack of transparency and long-term planning and vision. The problem has grown since the late 1990s, following the 15-year civil war, when successive post-civil war Lebanese governments had failed to establish a national strategy to handle waste. Any “strategy” that existed since the 1990s mostly addressed waste management in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, while the rest of the country had to fend for itself. The solutions were always temporary. There was no sorting of waste to be able to recycle, nor long-term planning for new landfill sites.
Many Lebanese activists are pointing fingers at entities with links to politicians who compete over profitable contracts. Others stress competing interests over land used for real estate and landfills.
The garbage crisis blew into the open in 2015, when residents of Naameh, south of Beirut, refused to accept any more trash to a landfill there, which had accumulated 13 million more tons of trash than it was meant to hold. With no alternative landfill prepared by the government, the contractor collecting trash in Beirut ceased its activity altogether, leading to mountains of garbage piling up along the streets. Protests by thousands of Lebanese to pressure the government to solve the garbage crisis or get out, as part of a poignantly labelled “You Stink” movement that emerged on the heels of the crisis, led to violent clashes with the police. With no comprehensive solution in sight, it persists as an interminable problem to this day.
In January 2018, the government passed a summary policy on integrated solid waste management and the Minister of Environment established a committee on waste management. On September 24, 2018, the Lebanese parliament under the caretaker government finally passed a law on national solid waste management, which was sent for parliamentary approval back in 2012. The law requires that the Ministry of Environment develop a waste management strategy within the next six months as well as oversee and monitor its implementation. The strategy is yet to emerge.
One of the key components of the new waste management law, however, is already being widely violated – municipalities are failing to enforce a ban on open dumping and waste burning. Mandatory penalties for such violations are not being imposed. Residents of numerous villages and towns across Lebanon are continuing to suffer from exposure to open-air waste burning and heavy smoke. More than 150 such dumps have been burning every week, constituting health hazards to thousands of people. The danger of open trash burning is worsened by improper disposal of industrial and medical waste, which carries toxic fumes. Open trash burning is linked to cancer, asthma, heart disease, skin diseases, and respiratory diseases. At this moment, enforcement of the law remains a major problem. It is yet to be seen the extent to which the government and the new law will go to address the crisis.
One of the main issues with tackling the garbage crisis in Lebanon is a deep split in opinions on how to solve it. Under the new law, the Lebanese government would build incinerators to burn trash and create more landfills, to the chagrin of the Lebanese people and environmental activists, who reject these options. A number of European countries rely on trash incinerators. However, applying the success cases of European countries in operating incinerators to Lebanon may not be so straightforward.
Local opponents of incinerators caution that other countries have strict regulations on how to run them, which they doubt would be the case in Lebanon. Most Lebanese justifiably fear that the central government, which has been dysfunctional for many years and has left municipalities and governorates with no financial or technical resources to deal with waste management, will be unable to properly control incinerators and limit air pollution and toxic fumes emanating from them. These fears are amplified given the government’s continued failure to address the open trash burning. The Lebanese are concerned that toxic emissions from incinerators will affect the health of 500,000 people in areas near Beirut. Besides, the high cost of installing and operating incinerators is an additional factor for a developing country, such as Lebanon.
Lebanese environmental specialists also point out that the vast majority of the waste in their country is organic, while the rest is plastic and paper, making it less suitable for burning, but more fitting for recycling. In fact, the effective waste management of other countries largely relies on sorting the waste into categories, which get either recycled or composted, while non-recyclables are incinerated and some end up in landfills. The new law on integrated solid waste management is now pushing for a similar strategy, which ought to be developed in the next few months. Currently, recycling in Lebanon relies on a motley crew of local businesses and NGOs. The populace is largely uneducated about recycling or composting, for which is difficult to blame them, given that there has never been a system and infrastructure for recycling or composting. Environmental groups have taken the initiative to raise awareness about recycling after the 2015 garbage crisis. However, there is no national campaign at the governmental level to promote recycling and composting.
Lebanon has a long way to go to clean up its garbage. Passing the waste management law was the first step, however imperfect. Given the strong protests against more landfills and building incinerators, the government’s ability to effectively address the waste crisis will hinge on finding a viable compromise with protesters. Prioritizing creation of a system of recycling and composting across the country is perhaps the most important way to reduce the amounts of trash before creating incinerators or more landfills.
Lastly, empowering local and municipal governments by providing technical and financial resources to deal with trash would be a crucial step to start cleaning up. Without doing so, the garbage crisis will not go away any time soon.