State of decay: How rubbish became Lebanon’s latest dumpster fire
Garbage is piling up in the streets of Beirut, thanks to a decades-old waste management system that is buckling.
Beirut, Lebanon – A man parks his scooter near a row of dumpsters, dons a headlamp, and jumps inside a massive waste receptacle, searching for cans and other scraps to sell on.
Dumpster divers in Lebanon have an embarrassment of waste to sift through these days – including on the streets of the capital, Beirut, where rubbish has been piling up.
There is no shortage of woes plaguing the country: widespread poverty, power cuts, fuel and medicine shortages, eye-watering inflation and an entrenched class of political elites who have paralysed government while the rest of the country sinks deeper into crisis.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, waste management is emerging as Lebanon’s latest proverbial dumpster fire.
The cash-strapped government is short on funds to pay the waste management company contracted to collect half the country’s garbage. Two key sorting plants destroyed in the devastating Beirut port explosion last year have yet to be repaired.
Environment Minister Nasser Yassin told Al Jazeera that he is trying to get the government to prioritise the waste problem, but it has not met in more than a month because of political squabbling.
He added that the only reason garbage has not escalated into a full-blown crisis is that most Lebanese simply cannot afford to produce as much waste as they used to.
“Because of the economic crisis and COVID-19, the production of garbage dropped by 30 to 40 percent,” he said, noting that if current waste production was on par with pre-crisis levels, the country’s two coastal landfills would likely have already reached capacity.
The last time that happened, back in the summer of 2015, some 20,000 tonnes of rubbish flooded the streets of Beirut, sparking protests.
Centralised and problematic
For decades, Lebanon’s waste management system has been highly centralised. The government awards contracts for waste collection, street cleaning and landfill management in and around Beirut to firms that are typically affiliated with political elites. Critics have blasted this system for being expensive, opaque and poorly regulated.
Last month, those claims were thrust into the spotlight after the United States sanctioned two Lebanese businessmen who had waste management contracts, claiming they profited from “pervasive corruption and cronyism”.
In a statement, the US Treasury said a company owned by one of the blacklisted men, Jihad al-Arab, had reportedly added water to rubbish containers so they could bill the state more, while a firm owned by the other sanctioned man, Dany Khoury, had won a contract to operate a landfill, only to be accused of dumping toxic waste and refuse into the Mediterranean Sea. The two contracts totalled a hefty $430m.
Beyond corruption, the current system also fails to address roughly half of the waste the country produces.
That is apparent in Lebanon’s poorly funded municipalities, where unsorted waste is routinely sent to some 900 open-air dumps to be burned, creating a public health hazard.
Though international organisations and foreign governments have funded waste management projects in remote areas, the initiatives were ultimately administered by Lebanese government agencies, where again a lack of transparency and accountability stymied results.
Samar Khalil of the Waste Management Coalition said that when it comes to waste management, Lebanon is not only ineffective, it has fallen woefully out of sync with the times.
“Everyone talks about the circular economy, and thinking of garbage as a source that we can retain as much as possible within the economy,” Khalil told Al Jazeera. “But here, we think of giving contracts to companies linked to politicians and political parties so they can profit.”
Yassin said he would like to see Lebanon implement an entirely new system for collecting and disposing of rubbish that is environmentally friendly and cost-efficient. Until that happens, he said he is trying to work within the current structure to make sure garbage does not blanket the capital.
“We cannot actually have solid waste and garbage piled up on the streets, but it’s happening,” Yassin said. “We’re trying to reduce the crisis, and work with the contractors.”
On its last legs
The private firm responsible for collecting rubbish and cleaning the streets of Beirut as well as those in two nearby provinces is RAMCO.
Back in 2017, the firm won contracts with the Beirut Municipality and the Council for Development and Reconstruction worth $70m and $86m respectively.
Lebanon’s financial crisis started causing problems for RAMCO in late 2019, when the Lebanese pound began losing value against the US dollar on the parallel market, while the official peg of 1,500 lira to the dollar remained fixed.
The government started to pay RAMCO in Lebanese pounds pegged at the official rate, which meant that the firm’s revenues from its government contracts effectively started shrinking.
Last year, the government started paying the firm at a slightly inflated rate to the official one, but the difference was not nearly enough to make up for the currency’s real slide in value.
By April 2020, the depreciating Lebanese pound sparked unprecedented labour unrest for the firm and the country. Hundreds of foreign workers at RAMCO went on strike, demanding better working conditions and payment in US dollars after the company switched to compensating them in Lebanese pounds.
By that point, the pound had lost roughly half of its value against the dollar, but the workers were being paid about minimum wage at the pegged rate.
RAMCO agreed to give the foreign workers a raise only after the dispute turned violent and riot police intervened – events that were captured on videos that went viral.
But the waste management firm’s financial woes have only worsened since then.
The pound has now lost some 90 percent of its value against the dollar. Petrol – which is needed to operate rubbish trucks – is practically priced out of reach. And the government is millions of dollars in arrears on its RAMCO contract.
The company has tried to pivot as it has been squeezed. In August, it limited its collection hours and asked residents in Beirut to only take out their garbage during certain times of the day.
Currently, it is operating at only half capacity. It cannot hold on to workers and currency depreciation has eroded some 85 percent of its revenues, said Ramco Director Walid Bou Saad.
“Half my staff left because they can’t afford living with their wages, or can’t go to work because of gasoline prices,” Bou Saad told Al Jazeera. “Their salary is around 3.5 million [Lebanese pounds], but would need about one or two million for gasoline alone.”
Half my staff left because they can’t afford living with their wages
Bou Saad said the contract does have a clause that allows its compensation rate to be adjusted for rising fuel prices and that the government’s failure to act on it places it in breach.
“The contract says if one party commits a violation, the other has the right to leave. I can refuse to pick up the trash for this reason,” he explained. “But what’s the alternative?”
The RAMCO contract does not technically fall under Environment Minister Yassin, but he said he is nevertheless pressing authorities to adjust the rate to reflect RAMCO’s real operating costs. In the meantime, he said he is encouraging the firm to keep collecting waste.
“I keep chasing them whenever I see garbage piled up,” he said. “I send them pictures, and I tell them that we’re trying to sort out a new formula. You cannot shy away from the responsibility and not show leadership in this.”
Bou Saad said RAMCO is not walking away from the contract. “We already have enough problems in this country,” he said.
But he believes the government faces a clear choice to either scrap the deal and offer a new tender with new terms, or adjust the existing terms to reflect market realities.
The end of an era
Environmental activists and experts like Samar Khalil, as well as economists, have called for Lebanon to implement a more decentralised waste management system that is more cost-effective and sustainable.
But Khalil realises they are pressing their agenda in a less than receptive political climate. “Now there is not only no political will, but no money,” he said.
I keep chasing them whenever I see garbage piled up
Lebanon passed a waste management law in 2018 that would pave the way to reduce market concentration and recover as much waste as possible through recycling and composting, boosting not just the local economy but the country’s environmental wellbeing. It would also create a waste management regulation authority, whose members would be based on the recommendations of the environment minister.
Environment Minister Yassin says the law has not been fully put into practice due to the country being mired in compounding crises, and because there is simply no money available to reform the system.
“We’re now out of money. No one is interested,” Yassin said. “Even the contractors, they were sitting here, and they wanted to hand everything over [to us].”
The current Lebanese government was only formed in September, and its term could end no later than May, should parliamentary elections take place. But Yassin said that while he is in office, he wants to at least lay the foundations for what comes next.
“Others are pushing back on it, but you need to present it to the public and put it to work,” he said.
Khalil fears that even if the ground is prepared and Lebanon can manage to mount reforms to unlock billions of dollars in international aid, entrenched political interests could continue to leave Lebanon’s waste management system in the dumps.
“I don’t know if it’s the end of this chapter because these rulers regenerate themselves,” Khalil said. “Tomorrow if they get money, they could do the same thing instead of learn their lesson.”