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French Version

Waste disposal centers face uphill battle against mountains of trash

With all 18 planned facilities operating at full capacity Lebanon will still be left with a surplus of unprocessed garbage

As the old saying goes, "Rome was not built in a day," and neither was Lebanon. Over the years of reconstruction and expansion, the war, the increase in population, and migration in and out of cities, our garbage has grown commensurate to those changes.

In fact, our garbage has accumulated so much that our dumps and landfills have reached their brink; and the water, like the soil and air, is polluted rather heavily in areas. And, like most citizens of the world, my knowledge of human waste and alternative options was rather limited - that was until I took a trip to three solid waste management plants that were spearheaded by the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), Lebanon and funded with a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It was an experience I will not soon forget; and it is a subject, it seems, with more questions around it than there are answers.

The goal of the project was to improve environmental practices for the management of solid waste throughout Lebanon. YMCA has nine solid waste treatment centers that will all be up and running, at the latest, by July of 2006. Combined, they will be able to process up to 250 tons of waste daily - 91,250 tons annually. In addition, four other NGOs in Lebanon have built, or are in the process of constructing, nine other solid waste treatment plants, also funded by USAID. Collectively, with the YMCA centers, the 18 plants will be capable of processing upward of 206,225 tons of regular human waste in a year - not including the copious amounts of unregulated, often hazardous industrial waste that comes from factories and the contaminated medical waste that comes from our hospitals.

Sukleen, the privately held waste-collection company, was unable to provide relevant information regarding their post-waste-collection procedures. According to their Web site, in 1998 they launched a pilot project for the collection of recyclable material sorted at source but there were no substantive figures attached. Sukleen did list the companies that it caters to broken down into industry - 17 industrial institutions, 216 commercial companies and 29 hotels and resorts, etc.

Lebanon, with its population of an estimated 4.5 million* generates roughly 0.7 kilograms per capita, per day. In tonnage, that comes out to approximately 3,150 tons of waste per-day. - 1,149,750 tons annually. With the 18 solid waste facilities functioning at maximum capacity, we are still left with an average of 943,525 tons annually that goes unprocessed. That is 4,717,625 tons of waste in just five years - and it is not all benign garbage either.

From the solid waste that comes into the plants, 90 percent of it is recycled, reused or composted: 30 percent ends up as recyclables, 60 percent is turned into compost, and 10 percent is deemed "inert" - plastic bags, tires, clothing, batteries, etc. Much of the inert materials, such as the plastic bags, are not biodegradable, remaining for hundreds of years, as is, while other inert materials, such as batteries, are highly toxic. Plastic bags may not be toxic but we have profuse amounts of them - everywhere. Not only do they litter our landscape but they are prevalent in every landfill and dump. Regular batteries, on the other hand, leak heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury into our soil and water. And our mobile telephone batteries, in addition, leak lithium which is radioactive - and they too are going into our land-fills and our dumps.

Driving up to the first solid waste treatment plant, admittedly, I was slightly apprehensive expecting to be overwhelmed by the stench of human garbage. While the odor was unpleasant, it suddenly became apparent to me that it was "my" garbage these men were sorting in order to create something that I might benefit from. Garbage, after all, was not anything I was unfamiliar with. I create garbage as much as the next person.

At first glance it looked like plain old trash lying around in heaps. I noticed broken, old plastic chairs strewn about, the odd bald tire on its side, a broken child's toy in the sun drying out, a colossal mound of plastic bags, of all colors, blue, white, black, and then right in the midst of it all was garbage - the kind we dispose of daily - the remnants of our very existence.

Upon closer examination, I saw that there clearly was a system in place. Solid waste treatment plants, generally, are broken down into four zones. The first zone is the unloading and sorting facility where the men go through our garbage and sort it separating out the compostable materials such as the remnants of our food - fruit, melon skins, cooked meats, vegetable skins like peeled cucumbers, carrots, etc. from the non-compostable materials - raw meat, large amounts of fat from slaughter houses, the plastic bags, the odd tire, emptied aerosol cans, etc. The second zone is the composting plant where the organic material is run through the composting process that involves several stages of sifting and turning the waste into compost. The waste is placed into special rotating drums that speed up its decomposition by continuously mixing it to maintain humidity levels and the temperature of the waste. The third is the maturation zone where the compost is removed from the drums and left out in the air to complete the composting process, cool and ultimately dry. And finally there is the stocking zone. The end product is, in some cases, bagged for sale, and in others, stocked in heaps for bulk purchase. The process of turning organic waste into compost takes about four weeks to complete. It is arduous and it is not for the faint of heart - or sensitive of nose.

Garbage and human waste go hand-in-hand. It is not something we can ever put an end to but we can reform and create alternatives before planet Earth is reduced to a giant cesspool of pollutants. It is far easier to dispose of our garbage in our garbage cans and allow nameless faces to haul it off to large, often foul-smelling trucks to an unseen place - hopefully far enough away from us all to ever really impact us. The reality for planet Earth is far more urgent.

It seems obvious that recycling and reusing our waste is our only option. Lebanon is a country that depends on its tourists. With the reality of further contamination of our fields, water and air, reaching epidemic levels, all ministries of our government have a vested interest in making recycling a part of their near-future plans. The Tourism Ministry has an interest if it plans to keep tourists coming. The Health Ministry has a vested interest if it plans to cater to a population exposed to toxic industrial waste. The Agriculture Ministry has an obvious vested interest and so on and so forth.

The "regreening" of Lebanon and how to deal with our garbage - past and present - is not an overnight transformation but it is a process that has to begin somewhere. And throughout Lebanon, with the help of NGO's, in collaboration with the government and local municipalities, there has been some improvement but so much more desperately needs to be done for our own well-being and that of our children, and Lebanon's future. And even the responsibility of those building the solid waste management plans should not end after they are built. There needs to be upkeep, management of the facilities, and improvement on the technology. And all NGO's and governmental organizations need to work together looking out for the good of Lebanon and not what looks good on their individual roster of accomplishments.

Solid waste treatment centers are one small step in our collective effort to cut back on our waste and convert it into resources. With the world's population growing exponentially, so too is our garbage. And our planet Earth is in dire need for humans to wake up and smell the pollution and the prospects of that effluence on our overall health. A garbage-filled, toxic earth is a reality that needs to be brought to the forefront of our minds as citizens - not just of Lebanon but of the world. And the collection of our garbage need not only be the responsibility of our governments and local municipalities but must begin in our homes. We have a distance yet ahead of us to cover but as another old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

*The last official census figures for Lebanon came out in 1932. The Directorate General of Statistics of Lebanon conducted a 1996 "household study" and their population figures came out to roughly 3,600,000 with some 425,000 foreigners. Nine years later, some estimate an increase in population of 450,000. No "exact" population figure exists.

Beirut 01-08-2005
Rana El Khatib
The Daily Star

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