Wading knee deep in trash, literal and political

As the piles of trash grow bigger, we demand long-term solutions

Greg Demarque | Executive

There’s nothing more frustrating for those of us who deal in facts to see rumor, opinion and plain horseshit posing as debate. The one thing that stinks more than the actual trash rotting on our streets is the national conversation about waste management. We demand real answers and vow to use these pages to showcase them for our readers in upcoming issues.

As evidenced by repeated, unsustainable promises that a ‘temporary solution’ was found while trash piles continued to grow, our politicians continue to not deal with us honestly concerning this matter. Not only did it take several days for the ‘solution’ to actually take hold, but let’s take a serious look at the very notion of a solution for garbage that is not long term. Waste is a health risk, and to dispose of it in an environmentally responsible way that does not poison the people living near it requires planning. You cannot simply burn it on the street, nor can you simply dump it into an abandoned quarry or open field. Both of these ‘temporary solutions’ harm the environment and pose risks to human health.

What many don’t know is that modern landfills are actually referred to as ‘sanitary landfills’ as they are engineered in a way to prevent rotting garbage from polluting groundwater and the surrounding landscape. (Naameh, by the way, is a sanitary landfill.) However, you cannot build one overnight – it takes months. Similarly, there are safe ways to incinerate refuse with little left over. Ironically, one byproduct of waste incineration is often electricity, but who in Lebanon needs more state-provided electricity? Waste incineration plants also take time to build. And money. So whatever ‘temporary’ solution is used, please know that it will hurt the environment and carry with it health risks. Not to mention the Lebanese penchant for ‘temporary’ to be a by-word for  long-lasting, if not permanent.

And remember, we’re only in this mess because of the government’s inability to manage waste properly. The plan for tendering new contracts proposed earlier this year could never have solved the Naameh problem even if companies had bid and won those contracts because of the state’s reactive decision to close Naameh by July 17. No replacement could have been realistically built in the timeframe the government imposed.

Moreover, the entire debate about the landfill deserves more robust investigation. Anyone who has been near Naameh knows that it stinks. It is unclear to us if the smell comes from the actual landfill itself or from the new truck-fulls of waste that came in an endless parade (i.e. an operational stink that would go away once the trucks stop bringing more garbage). While no one likes foul odors, they alone are not proof that Naameh is poisoning people. The government insists that Naameh is a sanitary landfill that expanded as its lifespan increased, meaning that all of the extra capacity waste is in a sanitary landfill, not simply strewn about in the general vicinity. Activists and residents, on the other hand, insist that Naameh is a filthy cancer causer. Neither have publically presented evidence to support their claims. We’ll do our best to find any evidence that’s out there. 

No discussion of garbage is complete, of course, without mentioning the commercial group, Averda, tasked with cleaning up after us. Averda has two companies; Sukleen which collects the waste and Sukomi which treats and landfills it. And yes, we said ‘treats.’ Sukomi does turn some organic waste into compost and does some recycling. Could it do more? For sure. But let’s make sure we have our basic facts right before we start making demands. Averda founder Maysarah Sukkar is allegedly a ‘Hariri man’ who won the contracts for cleaning up Beirut and most of Mount Lebanon in one corrupt way or another. Thus far, these allegations have neither been proven nor disproven, and we might not be able to offer a definitive answer either. What we will answer in future, however, is how the price Averda’s companies charge compare internationally. Let’s all be clear that this is not as straightforward as it may sound. First, we don’t have a confirmed figure on how much Beirut and most of Mount Lebanon pay for waste disposal. There are figures floating around, but the government is not transparent on this topic. In fact, back in 2010, there was a fight in the cabinet over extending contracts for Sukleen and Sukomi. Some politicians alleged the contracts were state secrets. They decried extending what they could not read. Earlier this year, Executive mentioned this episode to an official responsible for waste management. “Lies,” he cried. The official said that any parliamentarian or minister could read the contracts whenever the need arose. In fact, this official stressed how “anyone who has the right” to see them is welcome to. Executive was deemed to not have that right. More troubling, the official seemed ignorant to the idea that the public has the right to see them. We all pay taxes, right? Compounding the problem is the necessity to compare apples to apples. Even if we find a compelling reason to trust the oft-cited trash collection figure of $140 per ton, we must make sure that we compare it properly. Sukleen and Sukomi are paid to collect, treat and dispose of waste.  So the price per ton includes all three steps. When you hear someone say, “But in London/Cairo/Amman/New York it’s $X cheaper,” this is only true if the price abroad includes everything Averda is doing in Lebanon. Perhaps London only pays $35 per ton for street sweeping but much more for the rest of the trash death cycle. (Note that figure is purely an example. It did not result from even a basic Google search so don’t quote it.) We’ll do our best to find a reliable price-per-ton figure for waste management in Beirut and surrounding districts and attempt to put that price in context.

Starting now, Executive will do three things concerning waste management in Lebanon: Investigate claims about how clean Naameh is or is not; report on international best practice for both technology and pricing in waste management; and raise a stink until we see a sustainable solution that will work. This won’t be an easy task, but we’re happy with the challenge. Stay tuned for what we find, and in the mean time, stay clean.