Beirut – A year into Lebanon’s rubbish crisis, government officials have yet to find a long-term solution for the closure of the Naameh landfill site.
The crisis prompted anti-government protests last summer after mountains of rubbish accumulated in the capital, Beirut. Although rubbish is no longer piling up in the streets – with waste from Beirut and Mount Lebanon being diverted to a temporary landfill in Bourj Hammoud – politicians have yet to establish two proposed new sanitary landfill sites in Costa Brava and Bourj Hammoud.
In the meantime, there has been a gradual shift in public attitudes towards rubbish, with grassroots efforts emerging to promote recycling as an eco-friendly alternative.
“The point is to inspire active citizenship,” Armenian-Lebanese activist Varant Kurkjian told Al Jazeera. “We’re lending support to the collectors, strengthening an industry where there is a lot of potential.”
Frustrated by what the rubbish crisis was doing to his community, Kurkjian – along with his brother and two friends – hired a van last summer and began collecting recyclables from a network of family, friends and neighbours. They launched an awareness-raising initiative called Ganatch, the Armenian word for green.
A year on, they say their initiative has led to a change in habits.
“Within the circle of households we’ve been visiting, there is no desire to go back to their old practices … That mentality has changed,” Kurkjian said. “But within the general public, I think we [still] need to raise awareness.”
When the rubbish crisis hit, people starting seeing what a beast garbage can be, and wondering where it's been going all these years … I'm sure there are a lot of people who've changed their behaviour, but it's not enough.
Many of Lebanon’s recycling plants currently source their materials from scavengers who comb dumpsters for recyclable goods. They then sell these materials to rudimentary sorting plants, where the materials are sorted and sold to industrial factories.
But Palestinian entrepreneur Sam Kazak – the cofounder of Recycle Beirut, which formally launched last October – has opted to do things differently, starting the recycling process at the source rather than the dumpster. They pick up recyclable materials free of charge from people’s homes, before sorting and selling them.
“When the product is not clean, it loses value and it’s harder to sort,” Kazak told Al Jazeera. “You waste time, money and effort.”
Recycle Beirut now collects from more than 500 residences and businesses across Beirut, and has grown over the past year from two employees to 16, including six Syrian refugee women whose husbands were killed in the ongoing civil war.
Engineer Ziad Abichaker, who founded the Lebanese company Cedar Environmental nearly two decades ago, notes that recycling can be profitable. His team has developed an expedited composting process to produce fertilizer for farms, as well as a product called “ecoboard” – a durable, strong material made of recycled soft plastics that can be used to make furniture, pre-fab housing, planters and other items.
Contrary to the current ground-up recycling system, where materials from dumpsters are passed up the chain, he believes that municipalities should collaborate with private companies to create locally tailored recycling infrastructure, collections and sorting systems.
“When the rubbish crisis hit, people starting seeing what a beast garbage can be, and wondering where it’s been going all these years … I’m sure there are a lot of people who’ve changed their behaviour, but it’s not enough,” Abichaker says.
“I can hammer you with messages saying ‘Sort your waste,’ but if I don’t create the infrastructure so that whatever you sort can get remanufactured, what’s the point?”
Shady Sadek, a board member at the environmental awareness NGO Terre Liban, agreed, noting that his organisation has been collecting paper for recycling from schools and businesses since 2006, processing an average of 600 tonnes a year. Until recently, they also ran a sorting centre at their Baabda headquarters, where locals could drop off recyclables. But as the rubbish crisis persisted, their centre became overwhelmed with donations, and two months ago it was forced to stop accepting materials.
“People call us every day and say, ‘What do we do? We have recyclables but we don’t know what to do with them,'” Sadek told Al Jazeera, noting Terre Liban has officially submitted a proposal for the government to establish recycling centres in each of Lebanon’s 26 districts, and is awaiting a response.
A spokesperson for the Lebanese government did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter.
Abichaker says Lebanon could eventually become a “zero waste” society – meaning that all waste is reused or recycled – provided there is more investment to expand existing facilities. “The only way we can solve this is [to] have the full involvement of the private sector, and the government just making the playing field level for everybody,” he said.
Since the government’s long-running contract with waste management company Sukleen expired last summer, municipalities in Beirut and Mount Lebanon have been free to manage their own waste.
“We’ve been brought forward into a market that used to be monopolised. Prior to the crisis we couldn’t work in Beirut or Mount Lebanon,” Abichaker said, adding that he recently signed a contract with a municipality in Mount Lebanon.
Recycle Beirut has also signed a contract with a Mount Lebanon municipality for a pilot project handling composting and recycling for around 10 buildings. If successful, the project will be expanded to other areas.
“I believe that the solution starts [at] home,” Kazak said. “The garbage is not the government’s problem; it’s my problem, and it’s my neighbours’ problem, and my village’s problem, and the municipality’s problem. If I don’t find a way to solve my problem, no one will come and solve it for me.”