As could have been expected, chaos is ensuing. While the situation is not as dire as it was in the hectic summer of 2015 – when protests raged and trash burned on the streets of the capital and its environs – waste in Lebanon is still far from well-managed. One full year after Tammam Salam’s government approved a four-year trash plan covering Beirut and most of Mount Lebanon, it remains only partially implemented. And the new government seems in no rush to address the country’s lingering waste crisis. A ministerial committee dedicated to the issue met only once (in early March), according to news reports. Two sources at the meeting (and a representative of a third) ignored requests for information as to which ministry would take the lead in the new cabinet.
From Naameh to the sea
For more than 20 years, most of Lebanon’s garbage (50 percent, according to the Ministry of Environment) has been managed by sister companies Sukleen and Sukomi, children of parent company Averda. From street sweeping and bin collection to transport, treatment and disposal in the Bsalim and Naameh sanitary landfills – the latter permanently closed in May 2016 – Sukleen and Sukomi did it all in Beirut and five of the six districts of Mount Lebanon (excluding Jbeil). The status quo was meant to change in 2015, and the government – through the Council for Development and Reconstruction, a part of the prime minister’s office – tendered new waste management contracts for the entire country. A fully-implemented national plan would have been a first for Lebanon. Bidders had to commit to building modern treatment facilities and more sanitary landfills. Instead, within 24 hours of announcing the tender winners, the contracts were cancelled. Around a year later (in March 2016), the government finally settled on a new plan that – aside from the aforementioned lack of full implementation – seems to be sticking. Treated solid waste from the Metn and Keserwan districts will be landfilled in an offshore facility being built near Bourj Hammoud. Waste from Beirut and Baabda will be landfilled in an offshore facility being built south of the airport (the Costa Brava landfill). According to the cabinet decision announcing the plan, physical space to build a landfill for waste from Aley and Chouf still needs to be found.
Sabine Ghosn, head of the urban environment pollution control department at the Ministry of Environment, confirms that work on the Bourj Hammoud and Costa Brava offshore landfills is ongoing. She has no information on whether progress has been made on finding a landfill for Chouf and Aley, and explains that Sukleen stopped collecting waste in these districts when the Naameh dump officially closed on May 19, 2016. It’s unclear who, if anyone, stepped in to fill the void created when Sukleen stopped servicing the area. Ghosn says some municipalities or unions of municipalities may be taking matters into their own hands (Executive profiled one such initiative in the higher Chouf last year). She says that while the Ministry of Environment has asked municipalities to report on their waste management plans and practices, only around 10 of more than 1,000 have responded.
New contracts, same foot dragging
In an emailed response to questions, the press bureau of Sukleen and Sukomi explained the company relinquished responsibility for several sites it formerly managed on December 31, 2016. Ghosn confirms press reports that the new contractor is al-Jihad for Commerce and Contracting (JCC), whose majority shareholder is Jihad al-Arab. The company, according to its website, has won several state infrastructure projects in the past, including the sanitary landfilling of waste from the former Normandy dumpsite, which grew into a trash mountain some 12 meters above sea level during the war. JCC is now managing the Karantina and Amrousieh waste sorting plants, a storage facility in Bourj Hammoud, the temporarily-closed Coral composting facility – also near Bourj Hammoud – and the Bsalim sanitary landfill for inert materials, Ghosn says. She explains that the new contract does not stipulate that JCC increase the amount of waste diverted from landfills for recycling. In 2015, former Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk said Sukomi was recycling just 10 percent of the waste it collected.
According to both Al-Akhbar and the Sukleen/Sukomi press bureau, the CDR announced winners of new contracts for waste management last year. Sukleen’s service area, which formerly stretched from Keserwan in the north to Chouf in the south, was broken into three: Metn and Keserwan; Beirut and some of its immediate suburbs; and Baabda, Aley and Chouf. In their statement, Sukleen and Sukomi explained that, anticipating new contractors taking over street sweeping and collection, they have painted some of their vehicles white as “part of the demobilization plan, making it easier and quicker for us to manage the fleet that belongs to Sukleen after the last day of work.” That day, however, has still not arrived.
The CDR did not respond to an interview request for this article, and Ghosn was unsure why new collection contracts were not being implemented. Al-Akhbar reports the hold-up is related to the plan the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is helping draw up for the city of Beirut, which apparently still intends to try managing its own waste. Last year, Executive interviewed UNDP on the subject, and was told the plan would be a look at Beirut’s options rather than a detailed roadmap of what the city should do. Efforts to reach UNDP and the president of Beirut’s municipal council were unsuccessful this time.
The end goal of the current waste management plan is building waste-to-energy plants, which involve incinerating garbage and are strongly opposed by environmental activists. As with every waste management plan devised in the past 10 years, the waste-to-energy idea – which has already been adopted once and subsequently abandoned only to reappear in the March 2016 plan– requires finding land on which to build facilities in a densely populated country, where no one wants to live near a waste management plant. This challenge, coupled with a government that is clearly not prioritizing waste management, suggests we may yet re-live the summer of 2015 in just three short years.
The Costa Brava challenge
Parking baled waste next to the airport (until an offshore sanitary landfill could be completed) predictably attracted hungry birds. Fears for aviation safety led to new bird-repellent equipment being installed near the airport (among other “solutions”), but also resulted in judicial action. In January, a judge ordered the so-called Costa Brava landfill closed within four months. Executive was unable to reach the judge, however Sabine Ghosn from the Ministry of Environment offers some insight as to why there’s no scramble to find a replacement for Costa Brava in the face of the looming closure. “The judgment itself said the closure wasn’t a final decision,” she explains. Ghosn says neither the Bourj Hammoud nor the Costa Brava landfills were subject to legally required environmental impact assessments before construction began. However, she says the ministry is following up with all concerned stakeholders on “environmental management plans” for the two sites, an effort to mitigate environmental damage from the two offshore landfills.