Can Recycling Save Lebanon?

Garbage piling up in Jounieh, Lebanon (Eliane Haykal via Shutterstock)

by Austin Bodetti

Lebanon’s problems with waste collection have become notorious. After Beirut’s primary landfill closed in 2015 without a backup, what Lebanese dubbed “garbage mountains” engulfed the capital. The Lebanese government’s impromptu solutions, such as dumping refuse into the Mediterranean Sea, are no long-term fix. Many Lebanese consider recycling the most viable alternative to the Lebanese government’s current approach, but they must first overcome the immediate challenge presented by a lackluster environmental policy.

“The Lebanese government has been unable to find a comprehensive, sustainable, and environmentally friendly solution for dealing with the ongoing garbage crisis, and Lebanon has been facing unprecedented challenges in maintaining its already-weak infrastructure for waste management in the last few years,” says Lama Ghaddar, a program manager at the non-profit American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera), which has worked to promote environmental protection in Lebanon.

As Lebanese politicians compete for social influence, waste disposal and other bread-and-butter issues have fallen by the wayside. Although political parties from the Future Movement to Hezbollah have lamented the pileup of trash, Lebanon lacks a comprehensive response to the environmental issue.

“Lebanon’s approach to waste management has suffered from bad planning, lack of vision, and the overall absence of a national strategy for sustainable development—all from a dearth of political commitment,” reflects Fifi Kallab, a prominent Lebanese environmentalist who heads the non-profits Byblos Ecologia for Development and Environment and Zero Waste Coalition.

Last year, trash began washing onto Lebanon’s beaches, threatening the tourism that fuels much of the country’s economy. Parliamentarian Sami Gemayel, president of the Kataeb Party, responded by calling for the resignation of the Lebanese environment minister.

“Lebanon has failed to reach a comprehensive and environmentally friendly waste-management plan because of internal disagreements among its different political parties,” Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, tells LobeLog. “Disputes center on the distribution of costs and benefits entailed in the various propositions currently circulating in the Lebanese Parliament—with a tacit orientation toward decentralization and short-term solutions.”

Some Lebanese environmentalists blame the ongoing crisis on Lebanon’s political system, which apportions representation according to the size of the country’s divided religious communities.

“Lebanon’s sectarian political system has prevented politicians from reaching a consensus on many aspects of public administration, of which waste management is only one,” says a spokesperson for Recycle Beirut, a Lebanese environmental organization specializing in waste management.

In the absence of state interventionism, Lebanese environmentalists have taken waste collection into their own hands. Many Lebanese environmental organizations see recycling as the most logical way to circumvent Lebanon’s shortage of landfills. Moreover, Lebanon has much to lose from climate change, which is even killing cedars, the country’s national symbol.

“Recycling in Lebanon will require a long-term, multifaceted approach that will need cooperation from many stakeholders,” notes Salamey. “Most importantly, Lebanon must nurture an environmentally caring public culture, which is difficult to achieve in any economically poor and politically turbulent environment. The best solution for the country is for politicians to highlight the immediate potential for recycling to strengthen Lebanon’s economy by—for example—establishing companies that purchase recyclables directly from localities.”

Lebanese environmental organizations have already managed to achieve impressive results. Cedar Environmental is attempting to automate the separation of recyclables by type while Anera and Recycle Beirut are addressing Lebanon’s ecological and humanitarian crises by recruiting refugees to tackle waste management. Nonetheless, many Lebanese environmentalists acknowledge that the ultimate solution to the accumulation of garbage requires the financial resources of the Lebanese government.

“Anera’s efforts—along with the work of other environmental organizations—won’t be enough if the government and the Environment Ministry in particular don’t support the municipalities that are not capable of carrying out all the stages of waste management on their own,” Ghaddar tells LobeLog.

For their part, Lebanese political parties have a vested interest in backing recycling, which can not only bolster the country’s economy but also rally Lebanese from every political party.

“Politicians could incorporate waste management into their economic and social policies, adopt an environmental policy that encourages recycling, prevent recyclables from going to landfills, grant tax exemptions to businesses involved in recycling, and implement a strategy for national awareness,” says Kallab. “Most Lebanese municipalities—if not all—do not have the human and financial resources to undertake these projects on their own because they are unable to raise taxes to cover the services.”

Civil society has laid the groundwork for the Lebanese Parliament to institutionalize recycling, and the environmental movement in Lebanon continues to push for state interventionism.

“Environmental organizations have held workshops with subject-matter experts, participated in the drafting and promulgation of legislation, and formed influential partnerships within the environmental movement to mobilize a powerful lobby,” notes Kallab. “These efforts have empowered municipalities, changed how Lebanese see waste management, and led to a noticeable increase in recycling.”

As Lebanon struggles with gridlock, highlighting the potential role of recycling in the country’s economic recovery seems the perfect opportunity to unite Lebanese across the political spectrum.

“Establishing economic infrastructure that yields benefits from recycling is the first step essential to mobilizing public support,” Salamey tells LobeLog. “Of course, the economic gain that Lebanese can attain from a sound waste-management plan is of interest to a variety of social groups.”

Recycling could contribute to addressing countless social issues in Lebanon in addition to lifting the country’s economy, which remains mired in tens of billions of dollars in debt.

“Support for recycling encourages sustainable development and creates new industries, many of which increase employment among local communities,” Kallab tells LobeLog. “We can reduce the cost of waste management, limit the need for further imports, and strengthen domestic production.”

If the Lebanese Parliament manages to incorporate recycling into its economic and social policies by turning to consensus decision-making, Lebanon could become a model for countries such as Somalia and Yemen, which have their own history of challenges with waste management. Also, in a country bracing for the effects of global warming, recycling may help Lebanese bridge the decades-old divide between their fractious religious communities and social groups.

“Finding a sustainable solution for this crisis, which affects all residents of Lebanon, will represent a positive step toward decreasing the existing tensions in the country,” says Ghaddar.

Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.

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