The world of waste

If the rest of the world can find ways of dealing with waste, then surely Lebanon can too

Greg Demarque | Executive

Imagine following your trash.

On Twitter.
“Hello, this is container 100406100067629 in Le Roy, USA. I am 20% full.”

You’ve heard of smartphones and smart homes. Meet smart trash. Or, to be less anthropomorphic, web savvy systems for efficiently collecting household waste.
The trash bin Twitter feed comes to us from Enevo, a Finnish startup founded in 2010 which this year secured $15.8 million in funding, following $10.3 million raised in 2012 and 2013, according to the company’s website. Enevo’s value proposition is simple: make trash collection more efficient – meanwhile reducing both cost and carbon footprint – by using sensors and the web to identify which bins actually need emptying. And it’s not just bins getting more intelligent. In cities with advanced waste management plans, individual households or business establishments may have to pay extra fees for generating more than their allotted amounts of garbage. To help calculate those fees, there are garbage trucks fitted with GPS trackers and scales so that the amount of waste collected from a certain location is known and priced immediately. And while the digital age is providing smart solutions for how waste is collected, intelligent ways for dealing with tons and tons of trash are, by 2015, pretty well established.

King of garbage mountain

When talking trash, one phrase you are certain to come across is “waste hierarchy.” As the US Environmental Protection Agency describes it, “the hierarchy places emphasis on reducing, reusing and recycling the majority of wastes.” Treatment and disposal are at the very bottom of the inverted pyramid. At the top is a call for action incongruent with a consumerist society: generate less waste. The more we buy, the more we throw away. A 2012 World Bank study on global waste management practices notes that “as a country urbanizes and populations become wealthier, consumption of inorganic materials (such as plastics, paper and aluminum) increases, while the relative organic fraction decreases.” This is not to imply that as wealth grows, people become more wasteful. Packaging also plays a role, and it is therefore incumbent – according to the waste hierarchy – on producers to minimize their product containers. This applies equally to restaurants offering delivery services.

What a dump

That said, for all the talk of reducing, reusing and recycling, it seems the majority of the world’s household waste is still simply buried away somewhere. The 2012 World Bank report found that over 40 percent of the municipal solid waste (MSW) for the 85 countries for which data were available ends up in a sanitary landfill. The report says that around 8 percent ends up in a dump. For those not well versed in waste management lingo, a sanitary landfill is a purposefully engineered garbage depository. As waste disintegrates, it produces a toxic sludge called leachate – which can seep into and poison groundwater – and unwelcome gases, particularly methane. Sanitary landfills include, among other things, systems for controlling leachate and gas emissions, thus making them more environmentally friendly than dumps – which are sites where waste is thrown without controlling for the future. In Lebanon, according to a 2015 presentation by the Ministry of Environment’s waste expert Bassam Sabbagh, 51 percent of Lebanon’s MSW goes into a sanitary landfill while 26 percent winds up in a dump. The remaining 23 percent is either composted (15 percent) or recycled.

The ministry refused an Executive request to interview both Sabbagh and Minister Mohammad Mashnouq for this report. As a result of the closure of the Naameh sanitary landfill on July 17, the percentage of trash dumped is significantly higher. The country’s only other sanitary landfills are in Zahleh and Bsalim. The latter is only used for inert, dry materials like wood and tires, not MSW. The government’s “temporary solution” to the waste crisis has been telling municipalities in Sukleen’s service area to find their own dumping grounds. Evidence from Executive’s own investigations and photos shared on social media suggest waste from Beirut and its surrounding districts is being dumped seemingly at random, burned or both. Asked at an August 19 press conference how the ministry plans to clean these environmental disasters, Mashnouq referred Executive to an advisor who did not answer when contacted after the event.


Garbage power

In industry parlance, waste to energy means burning garbage to create electricity. Incineration, however, is not the only way Lebanon can use its refuse to help solve its power crisis. In fact, waste is creating electricity in Lebanon right now – and the amount is only set to expand. US-based General Electric announced in July 2013 that it would be installing landfill-gas-to-energy engines in Naameh as part of a pilot project. In early August, Sukleen and Sukomi officials gave Executive a tour of their operations, including the electricity generation station. The officials – who agreed to the tour on the condition they not be named – said they are currently producing 0.5 Megawatts of power, but could ramp that up to 6. According to Council of Minister’s decision 111 of May 21, 2015, the Council for Development and Reconstruction – which is the contractual partner of Sukleen and Sukomi – was given $10 million to make the upgrade. The money – along with over $6 billion to be paid for unidentified services rendered in 2012 – will be paid “to a company [previously] chosen” by CDR, according to the decree. The decree does not name the company, and CDR refused Executive’s interview request.

Down in Saida, a group of six Saudi and two Lebanese investors formed a company in 2004 and reached an agreement with the municipality to treat waste from the city and several neighboring municipalities (See story page 20). The company – IBC – is generating power to fuel its own operations through composting, or the conversion of organic waste into a soil conditioner, which is different from fertilizer in that it is beneficial for the soil, not just plants. Compost is made in one of two ways: with oxygen and without. Making compost in an oxygen-rich environment (as Sukomi does in its Coral facility in Bourj Hammoud) takes 72 days and requires the organic waste to be laid out in what are called windrows – creating the look of a fallow field ready to be planted. Making compost without oxygen – as IBC does – requires more investment in technology and machinery (called digesters, in controlled waste decomposition lingo) and comes with a potentially useful byproduct: biogas, which is mostly methane. This gas can be burned to create electricity. And IBC is doing just that. The plant has a capacity to receive and treat 500 tons per day of waste, but is currently only receiving around 250, general manager Nabil Zantout tells Executive. As such, IBC is only producing 1.6 megawatts for internal use, although he adds that .15 MW are used at night when the plant is not operating to power Saida’s streetlights.

[pullquote]waste is creating electricity in lebanon right now – and the amount is only set to expand[/pullquote]

IBC is also using some of the waste it collects to produce refuse-derived fuel (RDF) – or garbage logs that can be burned to create electricity for industry. Globally, cement plants are big RDF users. Sukomi wanted to create RDF for the cement industry, according to Averda CEO Maysarrah Sukkar who spoke during a late July interview on the popular LBCI talk show Kalam An-nas. But the government never reacted. At least one local cement producer – Cimenterie Nationale – is in favor of using RDF, according to its website, suggesting there is at least some market for the material in Lebanon. For now, Zantout says he has no local market for his RDF, though he is hopeful the Ministry of Environment will soon start licensing industry to use this source in the future. Until then, Zantout shows Executive non-load-bearing breezeblocks and sidewalk tiles made of waste which he says can be used as construction materials.

Incineration: A dirty word in Lebanon

Lebanon today does not have a waste incineration plant although building them has been part of the Ministry of Energy’s various national strategies for waste management for nearly a decade. During the war years, there were incinerators, and the state even paid $7 million to rehabilitate and upgrade one in Karintina in the late 1990s, only to close it shortly after the work was completed. Since then, activist opposition to incineration and resident rejection of a plant “in my backyard” have been the consistent barriers to waste to energy in Lebanon, according to interviews with officials responsible for waste management over the past three years. Incineration creates pollution, but suppliers of these plants in 2015 include the proper filters to minimize this pollution as part of their plants, which is already included in the price. Burning garbage also produces a toxic byproduct known as “fly ash” which must be properly landfilled, meaning an incinerator is not a complete replacement for a sanitary landfill.
Globally, according to the World Bank study, waste to energy follows closely behind recycling as the third most common method for waste disposal. A technical barrier to waste to energy in Lebanon is the country’s high percentage of organic content in its garbage. The moisture content of this type of refuse is high, thus it does not burn well. A 2015 Ministry of Environment presentation based on 2012 data says 53 percent of Lebanon’s waste is organic. A separate Ministry presentation reporting on a study conducted by the Danish company Ramboll on waste to energy solutions in Lebanon says that 15 to 20 percent of the organic material would have to be removed from the waste stream for it to be useful in an incinerator.

Separating the organics

Composting, therefore, would work well in Lebanon, albeit less well if garbage continues to come to a treatment plant mixed. IBC’s Zantout explains that receiving mixed waste gave the company a years-long headache as it tinkered with getting the compost clean and pure enough for farmers to be willing to use it. It’s very difficult, he says, to get small bits of plastic, broken glass and other impurities out of the organic stream. “It took us three years to get the compost right,” he adds. He explains that the plant is using German-made equipment and sorting machines, but they were not able to simply plug them in, start them up and begin compositing. “We had to do lots of modifications.” All of this experimentation, however, will pay off, Zantout believes. He says IBC and a German consultant who helped design the process they have in place for creating compost will file a joint partnership patent. “We have a model for anaerobic digestion of mixed waste,” he says. This model, he believes, is exportable. Throughout the MENA region, waste has a high organic content, so there is no shortage of opportunity. As for what valuation he’d give IBC at this point, he laughs. “It’s premature because we’re still in debt.”


IBC was not alone in having trouble turning mixed waste into compost in Lebanon. Sukomi – which composts 300 tons per day of organic waste – had the same problem, an official tells Executive on a tour in mid-August. The company has since also experimented and invested in more advanced sorting technologies. The official says that Sukomi gives the compost free to farmers, and notes 80 percent of those who take it travel from across the country to Bourj Hammoud to pick it up, suggesting that were it for sale, there is a market for such a product. Zantout is also giving his compost away for free while continuing to work on increasing the purity. He too believes there’s a compost market in Lebanon.

The country’s garbage future

While it may seem hard to believe given the current state of waste management in Lebanon, the country has several garbage innovators. IBC is one example, but Cedar Environmental also has a patented technology for composting mixed waste with anaerobic digestion. Since 1999 Cedar has been building plants in Lebanon, company CEO Ziad Abi Chakra told Executive in an interview earlier this year. And, love them or hate them, Averda used Lebanon as a training ground and is now managing waste in several cities outside of the country, according to the company’s website.

Had the government not cancelled the waste management tenders it organized, there would have been many more solutions throughout the country. Although these solutions would have been costly, they were based on internationally proven technologies. Instead, there are now more open dumps – which entail zero technology and come with absolutely no sustainability – and no clear strategy for what to do with them. It is unclear if the plan to send waste to Akkar includes trying to clean up the damage that has been done since the Naameh landfill closed. And if the three-year Akkar ‘emergency plan’ falls through, who knows what will come next. Perhaps we will revert to the ways of antiquity. Former Environment Minister and current Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb has one such solution. Along the coast near Amrousayeh, south of Beirut where Sukomi currently has a sorting facility, he says untreated wastewater has for years been dumped into the sea, killing off any life that once lived there. Given the advanced state of degradation in the area, Chehayeb says, “I would suggest to construct a breakwater and dump [the waste] into the sea.”

[pullquote]It may seem hard to believe [that lebanon] has several garbage innovators[/pullquote]

It was not exactly clear how serious the proposal is meant to be, given that Chehayeb acknowledges that this “solution” would violate any imaginable international treaty and environmental obligation that Lebanon has, plus notes that Speaker Nabih Berri is against it. Optimism, a national virtue in the face of a garbage disaster that is unresolvable given the current political procrastination, dictates that the next iteration of tendering will result in some form of real solid waste management. When this will happen however is anyone’s guess, but we can rest assured that it will not be as soon as needed. This leaves the door wide open for ad-hoc initiatives to make as much money with as little responsibility as possible, whilst condemning Lebanon to its rotten fate. The currently uncontrolled burning of trash – which is the surest way to release toxins and carcinogenic substances such as the notorious dioxins, into our already poisonous city air – makes even the absurd marine dumping idea look appealing. Indeed, to environmentally and economically justify this ‘lesser’ of two evils, Chehayeb goes so far as to note that the offshore area next to Amrousayeh has both depth and a high salt concentration – plenty of decomposing space in our wonderful waters. Chehayeb quips that the waterfront area Solidere reclaimed near the old Normandy dump “is the most expensive land in Lebanon.” So once the dump in the sea is full, we’ll have a nice slice of new seafront real estate to develop.

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.