BEIRUT: Since the start of September, the Metn town of Beit Mery has been working to implement an innovative zero-waste management program, the first of its kind in Lebanon. Designed and managed by Cedar Environmental – a Lebanese environmental and industrial engineering organization – the program has, the project leaders claim, completely eliminated municipal landfill waste.
According to the municipality head Roy Abou Chadid, all the garbage produced in the town, with the exception of medical and industrial by-products, is either recycled or composted.
To date, the facility has processed over 777 tons of materials.
“This all started as an emergency plan during the garbage crisis in 2015,” Ziad Abi Chaker, founder of Cedar Environmental, told The Daily Star.
However, after the local landfill was reopened, the municipality realized that they wanted a longer-term solution. “We realized that we had to count on ourselves,” Abou Chadid said. “We couldn’t continue in the way we did before. This new program was the only way we could solve our problems.”
What has emerged is a comprehensive waste management system that includes the sorting, composting and processing of recyclable materials – “the first zero-waste landfill operation in Lebanon,” Abi Chaker explained.
“All recyclable products are set aside, and biodegradable products are composted. What remains is compressed under high temperatures and turned into ‘ecoboard,’ which can be used as a building material,” Abou Chadid said.
Moreover, the compost, along with the ecoboard and reused recyclable products, “creates more jobs and puts materials back into the economy, in addition to [creating] good quality fertilizer for agriculture,” Abi Chaker said.
Additionally, Abou Chadid noted that the new program was roughly 50 percent cheaper on a monthly basis than the town’s previous contract with Sukleen – the main waste contractor for Beirut and Mount Lebanon. The town now pays just $62 per ton, as opposed to $149.
While the project has been rolled out without significant fanfare, meaning some local residents said they were unaware of the changes, those who had seen the new project were supportive.
Local resident Michel Haddad told The Daily Star that so far the people of the town had seen no change to front-line services but were happy that their waste was not headed to landfills. “Everything is working fine, people from the municipality collect the garbage and the recycling system is working well.”
Nevertheless, Abi Chaker admitted that the program in Beit Mery was only one part of a broad package of programs to solve Lebanon’s waste issues. “It looks like the garbage crisis has really become bigger than anybody expected. It has become unmanageable.”
On the one hand, Cedar Environmental is striving to address these wide-ranging issues by expanding their projects into other municipalities. “We would like to duplicate this in as many communities as possible. We hope that it will allow them to come together to address this crisis on their own.” While Abi Chaker didn’t speak explicitly about the group’s next project, he noted it would be bigger than the one implemented in Beit Mery – possibly processing up to 25 tons of waste per day, and capable of serving up to 50,000 people.
On the other hand, however, other groups have been pushing different, more controversial solutions to waste problems – including incineration. “It has become a much more popular method,” Abi Chaker said. “We’re concerned, because oftentimes proponents of it try to make it sound like recycling and composting doesn’t work.”
Concern over incineration was echoed by Rima Habib, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the American University of Beirut. Referring to an initiative supported by caretaker Education Minister Elias Bou Saab that installed an incinerator in the Metn town of Dhour Choueir, Habib explained that the project faced heavy opposition.
“Incinerators, without the proper supervision and technology, are terrible for toxins, gases and carcinogens,” Habib said. According to Habib, Dhour Choueir’s incinerators are a difficult proposition for a country like Lebanon. “They require a tremendous amount of maintenance, and you need to stay up to date with the latest technology and parts.”
George Ayoub, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at AUB, was also concerned by incineration as a potential fix for the country – despite its increased popularity. Citing a similar rationale to Habib, Ayoub noted that effectively maintaining complex incinerators was beyond the capacity of much of the country. “I myself doubt whether if we start such a system we will continue to properly maintain and operate it,” he said. “If we fail it will be a catastrophe.”
Ayoub himself was generally pessimistic about the prospect of improving Lebanon’s waste crisis – despite the successes of Cedar Environmental’s project in Beit Mery.
“There is no one solution that fits the whole country,” he said. Because of Lebanon’s diverse array of landscapes and highly concentrated urban areas, large processing plants like the one used in Beit Mery might not be possible everywhere.
“As far as cities are concerned, composting is out of the question,” Ayoub told The Daily Star. “They need the area for sorting and manufacturing all of this.” Moreover, if cities tried to ship their waste elsewhere to be processed, the logistical barriers would be huge. “The cost of transportation would be so high that it would not be feasible anymore,” he said.
The question of transportation is also an issue when it comes to the more basic prospect of increasing landfill space outside urban centers.
While there is land available for projects like this in the Bekaa Valley and the north of the country, Ayoub noted that “people forget about traffic. Thousands of tons of refuse are generated in Beirut. How would you transport this? Hundreds of trucks would be traveling on the road.”
By Ayoub’s account, the only viable solution is more research. “You need to study every single area by itself, study the economics and study the available places you can use,” he said.
Despite the serious problems that remain in the Lebanese waste management system, people like Abi Chaker are optimistic that progress can be made. “People [in Beit Mery] are excited about their new options, and about the idea that this crisis is solvable,” he remarked.
Abou Chadid echoed this optimism, noting that the town wants to expand its current program to serve the surrounding communities. “We are working on a new plan, with financing to build a bigger factor with a bigger capacity.”
According to Abi Chaker, “If you’re an objective decision-maker, not looking to profit from the crisis, a program like this is a no-brainer.”