Lebanon's trash crisis: campaigners want the waste at home

Published December 28th, 2015 - 07:55 GMT
As of November, an estimated 100,000 tons of trash have accumulated in and around Beirut. (AFP/File)
As of November, an estimated 100,000 tons of trash have accumulated in and around Beirut. (AFP/File)

Environmentalists and engineers are warning that the Cabinet plan to export Lebanon’s trash is wasteful and morally irresponsible, and they say the country should keep its trash within its borders.

“There is nothing positive” about the plan, said Ali Darwish, the president of the Lebanese NGO Green Line Association, an environmental organization. “European firms have a history of scandals, throwing waste on other people. Where’s the moral responsibility?”

With trash piling up around Beirut and Mount Lebanon and constituting a threat to public health, Prime Minister Tammam Salam last week pushed the Cabinet plan as a reprieve from the “nightmare” crisis.

The Cabinet selected two firms, Howa BV of Holland and Chinook Urban Mining International of Britain, to take charge of export operations. But with few details known about the agreements, environmentalists say it is unethical to move the country’s now-infectious waste to another nation’s shores.

“We have a moral responsibility toward other people,” Darwish told The Daily Star.

Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb said last week the destination countries would be revealed only after the relevant contracts and treaties are signed, citing the need to reach a quick resolution in order to begin exports.

The Cabinet decision constitutes a major setback for the environmental movement, which has demanded transparency and savings from the waste sector.

“Is there a legal delegation of authority from the government to bypass all the financial procedures of the state?” asked Darwish. “There should be official bids, which are evaluated by an [independent] committee, so that there is no conflict of interest or collusion. Technically, there are a lot of questions to ask.”

Instead, the Cabinet said it would pay for exports in part out of the Independent Municipal Fund, continuing a practice that has drained local budgets for over a decade, environmentalists say.

“We want money for municipalities because we want development for municipalities,” said Paul Abi Rached, the president of the Lebanese environmental coalition Ecomovement.

At $212 per ton, the price to export comes to about $60 more than the state is rumored to pay Sukleen, the incumbent waste contractor.

The public has not seen the technical terms of reference or the bids that led the Cabinet to select Howa and Chinook, leaving observers to accuse ministers of depriving the local waste industry of business.

“Exporting is not economical,” said Joseph Kassab, a civil engineer who has consulted with a number of municipalities on waste-management projects. “Imagine how much money we are paying to outside [companies]. In this way, they are bankrupting Lebanon.”

He said he could only support exporting the trash that has already piled up, estimated in November to have exceeded 100,000 tons.

“But [what] we are doing for the future, nobody knows. I prefer [waste] stays in Lebanon,” added Kassab, who said it could be safely stored in temporary landfills, known as “parking,” lined with impermeable membrane, until local solutions are developed.

Chehayeb and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk led the government’s efforts to open parking and sanitary landfills in September and October, but fierce opposition from local residents sunk the initiative.

Last week’s Cabinet decision also affirmed a 2010 decree to invest in waste-to-energy facilities, that would incinerate the country’s garbage or at least transform it into fuel.

Lebanon’s Ecomovement has previously endorsed the fuel technique as one waste management technique among many, but the Green Line Association condemned any steps towards incineration, saying the global community is moving away from the method.

Chehayeb was at pains to note last week that he did not recommend incineration or waste-to-energy to the Cabinet.

By Philip Issa


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