Clearing up the mess

After 2015’s protests, what has the government done to fix the waste management crisis?

Over 100 municipalities did not clean up their waste crisis dumps (Photo: Greg Demarque | Executive)

This article has been updated from the print edition to reflect news developments. 

There’s a landfill in Lebanon people usually forget about. It’s around 15 kilometers northeast of Beirut in a town called Bsalim. It draws no ire. Nearby residents do not burn tires to demand its closure. Unlike the now-shuttered Naameh sanitary landfill southwest of Beirut, Bsalim only accepts what is known as inert waste – meaning garbage that will not decompose and cause damage to the surrounding environment, like concrete, for example. In the heat of operation, it smells just fine. This was not the original plan. Bsalim was intended to be a second Naameh. However, according to both Averda CEO Malek Sukkar, whose company built both landfills, and a 2001 report commissioned by the Ministry of Environment, plans for Bsalim to become a sanitary landfill for municipal solid waste (MSW) – a stinking, co-mingled garbage stew in a country with nearly no sorting at source – fell through after an environmental impact assessment found that groundwater at the site was too close to the surface. This was back in the 1990s. Flash-forward to July 2015. A few hundred meters away from the Bsalim inert materials sanitary landfill, nearby municipalities began dumping their garbage into the valley. They did not install liners to keep the waste in place nor a drainage system to collect leachate (a toxic sludge produced by decomposing MSW which pollutes groundwater). They created an open dump. Recent trips past the valley reveal that it still has not been cleaned up, no doubt to the detriment of the shallow aquifer.

The garbage crisis: a lasting legacy

The Naameh landfill served Beirut and the districts of Chouf, Aley, Baabda, Metn and Kesourwan (which collectively account for around half the country’s waste, according to the Ministry of Environment). It used to receive a staggering amount of garbage each day – nearly five full trucks per hour, according to information Executive received on a tour of the facility in August 2015. Cabinet closed the landfill in July 2015 without an alternative lined up. As rubbish piles grew in areas that used to depend on Naameh, the Ministry of Environment issued an order to affected municipalities: Tell Sukleen (the service area’s trash collector) where to park your waste. Not all of them did.

This temporary solution ended up lasting nearly eight months. And how much of the “old” waste was collected? The answer is not entirely clear. As noted above, not every municipality in the service area found Sukleen a parking spot. In an email exchange with Executive, a Sukleen spokesperson says 159 of 268 municipalities (59 percent) had their “old” garbage picked up. The “total amount exceeded 900,000 tons.” The remaining 109 municipalities in Sukleen’s service area “did not request the collection service” and the company has “no data nor documentation regarding their accumulated waste,” the spokesperson says.

What comes next?

The waste crisis prompted mass demonstrations in downtown Beirut in 2015. Protesters wanted municipalities – which have a legal right to manage their own garbage – to be financially empowered by the central government to sort their trash worries out themselves. While the government promised to do just that in the wake of a summer of discontent, plans have since changed. The Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) – part of the prime minister’s office – is again handling waste management from the contracting side. CDR is Sukleen and Sukomi’s contractual partner in Lebanon, an arrangement much decried last year, and is in the process of tendering new garbage deals as “the street” remains silent. The first tender, which closed in mid-May and called for building a sanitary landfill in the sea near the airport on land known as Costa Brava, was canceled for allegedly high costs on June 24 (the project is being re-tendered with a new deadline of July 15, according to CDR’s website). Bids to build a second landfill in the sea near Bourj Hammoud were due on June 14, according to one contractor who bid. The contractor explained that both landfills will be protected by breakwaters and include multiple types and technologies of liners to prevent waste and leachate from entering the sea. CDR refused repeated interview requests, and Executive was unable to independently verify the contractor’s information. These two contracts only cover landfilling, however. CDR’s website says that a tender to build composting and sorting facilities to handle waste from the Sukleen/Sukomi service area will close on July 25. As for waste collection and street sweeping, CDR’s website lists two tenders, meaning the Sukleen/Sukomi service area is being divided. The first new service zone covers Beirut, Metn and Kesourwan while the second covers Baabda, Chouf and Aley. Bids for these contracts are scheduled to close on July 19, but the website notes the closure date has already been delayed three times.

The new plan, unlike the tenders last year, only covers the Sukleen/Sukomi service area. And Beirut might potentially opt to bow out of the scheme. United Nation’s Development Programme’s Gharib confirms that the outgoing municipal council signed a memorandum of understanding with UNDP in April 2016 to find solutions for the capital’s garbage. With the recent swearing-in of a new municipal council, Gharib says he’s not sure what the future of coordination between the two will be, and notes that no actual plan has yet been written. Indeed, he says the plan will not offer one concrete solution, but rather various options for the city to weigh given its many constraints, the most obvious being lack of land for waste management facilities. He could well be speaking of the fate of the government’s plan in general. The insurmountable obstacle facing government waste plan after government waste plan over the past decade has been resident opposition to living near a management facility. How that will change is a question no one Executive has asked in the past year has been able to answer.

THE BEST LAID PLANS

Choosing a way to clean up after the July 2015 crisis proved no quick task for Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s government. A plan in motion before the crisis erupted called for dividing the entire country into six service zones, each with a comprehensive solution. While the plan did not make demands on what type of technologies had to be employed to manage waste (i.e., incineration, composting, etc), it did call for a significant reduction in the volume of waste sent to landfill. Over 80 percent of the waste Sukleen was collecting got landfilled, according to the Ministry of Environment. Under the now-canceled contracts, winners would have been allowed to landfill 40 percent of collected waste in the first three years and only 25 percent thereafter. While the tendering should have logically been concluded months prior to closing Naameh (so alternatives could be in place), winners were announced a month after the crisis began. The new contracts were then canceled less than 24 hours later. “At least we would have had infrastructure,” laments Nicolas Gharib, who works on waste management issues in Lebanon for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), referring to the various sanitary landfills, composting, sorting, waste-to-energy and refuse-derived fuel facilities contractors had agreed to build.

With the contracts canceled, a new plan for trucking waste from the Sukleen/Sukomi service area to other parts of the country gained currency but never came to fruition. Exporting garbage was next on the list, but that idea also fell apart. The most recent plan (approved in March 2016) seems to have stuck. It first tasked Sukleen and Sukomi with collecting some of the waste that had accumulated during the crisis. This “old” garbage was sent to Naameh. All “new” garbage – meaning trash generated after the plan’s approval – was collected by Sukleen, sorted and baled by Sukomi, and parked next to soon-to-be-built offshore landfills near Costa Brava, south of the airport, and Bourj Hammoud. The plan calls for a third landfill to accept waste from the Aley and Chouf districts but the final location of that landfill has not yet been determined.

Matt Nash

Matt is Executive's Economics & Policy Editor. He has been reporting on Lebanon since 2007 with a focus on oil and gas, policy and legal matters.

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