Lebanon’s waste sector at risk of the same mismanagement as electricity

Another crisis of our own making

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The waste crisis and the mismanagement of the sector have become a symbol of government incompetence and corruption. Millions of dollars have been squandered, and instead of having modern infrastructure, we have been left with an ongoing disaster affecting our health and draining our resources. There are 941 open dumps in Lebanon, more than 150 of which openly burn waste on a weekly basis. We are polluting our surface, groundwater, soil, and air. A Human Rights Watch report quoted an unnamed environmental journalist who said: “It’s as if you’re inhaling your death.”

Apologists for the disastrous status quo keep saying that no one is offering a viable solution, and present incinerators as the magical fix-all that will make the waste problem disappear. This “waste-to-energy” solution will allegedly solve the waste problem and the country’s other lingering crisis, electricity. For proponents, waste will be the new electricity source, whereas, in reality, it will be the new electricity scandal.

Local solutions needed

The waste problem cannot be solved with fragmented solutions or expensive and complicated technologies. Waste management is a social output and should be adapted to local conditions. Waste management solutions cannot be simply copied. What works well in Monaco will not necessarily work in Lebanon. What is needed is a comprehensive solution that takes into consideration our habits, our waste composition, our administrative and legal framework, our financial means, and our geographic and topographic nature.

We need to start working on waste minimization, enacting laws and providing incentives for reducing the use of plastics, for example, and encouraging waste reuse and recycling. We should start to enforce sorting waste at source to improve the value of recyclables and to limit the contamination of organic waste that can be treated biologically and turned into compost, which has commercial value and can improve agricultural soil. We are currently importing compost from abroad to use in our agriculture sector, even though the majority of our waste is composed of organics (more than 53 percent). Recyclables make up to 30 percent of the garbage we produce and can bring an estimated annual benefit of $65-272 million to the Lebanese market. The remaining fraction of the waste that cannot be recycled can be valorized and transformed into lower grade products, such as plastic crates and boards, or it can be placed in a landfill.

Incinerators, or the proposed “waste-to-energy” solution, cannot be considered an option for Lebanon given that most of the prerequisites for their adoption are not met. Waste incineration can be considered in countries where mature and well-operated waste management systems exist and where community planning systems are stable and able to make appropriate long-term planning decisions (for more than 15 years). This is not applicable to Lebanon, a country that has been implementing emergency plans for the past 20 years.

Another condition is that the calorific value of the waste must be high enough to sustain combustion. The high organic and water content of the waste in Lebanon makes it of low calorific value. To increase its calorific value, energy would be spent to dry the organic fraction and recyclables—especially plastics and materials with high calorific content—should be burnt. This will entail losing valuable resources and energy. The energy produced by incinerators will be minimal and not worth the pollution that mismanagement might cause.

Incinerators cannot be used without a robust legal and institutional framework that can oversee and monitor the emissions and effluents of this technology, enforce compliance with standards, and apply sanctions and penalties on polluters. Incinerators transform waste from a solid physical form to ash and air emissions. Air emissions from incinerators are highly toxic and carcinogenic. A pollution control system is needed to capture those emissions and the toxic fly ash. Proper monitoring of emissions is needed and proper disposal of fly ash in hazardous waste landfills should be secured. No labs in Lebanon are equipped to test for certain pollutants (such as dioxins and furans) emitted by incinerators, and there is no specifically-designated hazardous waste landfill at the national level. Moreover, air pollution levels in the country already exceed World Health Organization standards and are linked to increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. We do not need additional cumulative sources of pollution in the country.

Finally, incinerators are among the most expensive technologies, costing between 80 and 200 euros per ton of waste. This technology is usually adopted in communities that are able and willing to pay for the increased treatment cost, for example via management charges, tipping fees, tax-based subsidies, or high electricity feed-in tariffs. With the economic situation in Lebanon and the increasing debt, lending $1.15 billion to adopt incinerators is suicide.

Finding an environmentally friendly alternative

Since the end of the civil war, Lebanon has been suffering from an electricity crisis—despite the investment of billions of dollars and the electricity sector being highly subsidized—costing the country around 25 percent of its annual state budget. Looking forward, the waste sector will be the new electricity sector, and the country will drown further.

There is an immediate need to adopt appropriate solutions to the environmental predicaments facing Lebanon. We need to start with a comprehensive strategy that reduces health and environmental risks, recovers materials, and finds alternatives to the incinerator plan, which would cost more than a billion dollars.

We are facing a classic case of corruption: squandering public money for personal gain.

I was promised a special emergency legislative session by Speaker Nabih Berri to address  the country’s environmental challenges. We are preparing tens of draft laws aimed at stopping the deterioration of the environment, which is affecting our health, tourism, and economy, and has become a national crisis. There is an urgent need to pass laws to deal with solid waste and wastewater. Enacting laws is important, but even more important is the enforcement of these laws.

The environmental degradation that we are facing is becoming irreversible. We need to act now. Everyone has a role to play, including citizens, deputies, municipalities, ministries, and judges. This is a battle that we cannot afford to lose. Our children’s future is at stake. Unless we unite and join hands, we cannot prevail over the entrenched forces of darkness.

Do not waste our future, and do not make the waste sector the new electricity crisis, dragging the treasury, and the country, into ruin.

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