Lebanon residents take recycling into their own hands to tackle the country’s waste crisis

Recycle Beirut is one of a number of citizen-operated initiatives in Lebanon who are tackling the country’s garbage crisis and finding solutions to stop polluting the Mediterranean Sea, of which the Levantine-country is a major contributor.

Kassem Kazak, along with an American friend, was inspired to set up the recycling business as a solution to not just the garbage crisis in the country, but the refugee crisis too.

More than a million-and-a-half refugees from Syria have fled to Lebanon following the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

Kassem Kazak says: “This tiny country [Lebanon], less than half the size of Sicily and still recovering from its own civil war, has struggled to meet the challenge.

“At the same time, Lebanon has faced a prolonged waste crisis with tonnes of untreated garbage burned or dumped in forests, waterways and the Mediterranean Sea.”

The social-enterprise, Recycle Beirut, was set up in 2015 as a response to both the waste crisis and refugee crisis – providing an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional waste disposal, as well as create job opportunities for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Kassem Kazak adds: “We thought why not put these refugees to work? By cleaning the country they can build a green economy that will create jobs for Syrians and Lebanese alike. So that is exactly what we did.”

Prior to setting up Recycle Beirut, the concept of recycling was little-known in Lebanon, and recycling plants simply didn’t exist in the country. Kaseem Kazak had no experience of the recycling industry other than a heart-felt desire to tackle the ongoing garbage crisis.

Garbage had piled up in the capital on-and-off for two years, following the closure of Naameh – the country’s main landfill, and prolonged by government inaction.

Up until 2015, waste disposal was mainly taken care of by a private company, Sukleen. Collected waste was briefly processed, if at all, then dumped at Naameh, south of Beirut.

The landfill at Naameh had more than reached full capacity yet Sukleen continued to overload the site in spite of this.

The extreme unpleasantness of living in Beirut during the crisis brought public awareness of the health and environmental problems caused by waste.

In July 2015, protesters led by a group called You Stink! took to the streets demanding a government resolution to the problem. In the absence of an alternative plan, Sukleen simply stopped collecting garbage, and trash began piling up in the streets of Lebanon.

A month later, the You Stink! movement brought more than 200,000 people to the streets to demand that the government come up with an economical and ecological plan to dispose of the waste.

The Lebanese government, ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world, still hasn’t found a solution. While residents no longer see the mounds of waste left on the street, as documented in 2015, they speak of how waste is being dealt with by other non-environmentally friendly means such as being to sent to landfills before untreated waste is then dumped into the sea.

Such inaction by the government has united citizens to take action themselves. Hence the birth of Recycle Beirut, among other organisations with united in their cause.

Trucks from Recycle Beirut drive through the streets of the Lebanese capital, collecting recycled waste from private households. The waste is collected in a warehouse and eventually brought to the individual waste processing plants.

Today, the company employs 17 Syrian refugees and sends out three trucks every day to pick up 2 to 3 tonnes of pre-sorted waste. This new focus on recycling is also reflected in the number of households who have signed up with Recycle Beirut, which has risen from a dozen to more than 1,100.

Recycle Beirut’s business is as much about awareness raising of the environmental issues facing Lebanese people as it is about providing a service.

The anti-trash protests of 2015 have spawned a number of environmental movements and non-governmental organisations including Recycle Lebanon.

Independent of Recycle Beirut, Recycle Lebanon is an environmental and social change platform aimed at “raising national awareness, connecting and empowering individuals to facilitate the societies shift towards regenerative thinking”.

Recycle Lebanon, which organises community clean-ups, is currently seeking donations via Just Giving to continue its work.

The organisation, Recycle Lebanon, says it will put the £2,000 it is aiming to raise in funds towards an online open source system to manage recycling by municipality – “an essential stage of [Recycle Lebanon’s] ultimate vision”.

Recycle Lebanon adds: “Whilst it is impossible to instantly transform the approach of so many, Recycle Lebanon is working tirelessly to change this attitude. This is a worldwide problem so let’s seize this opportunity as residents of Planet Earth!”

The number of businesses – such as architects, designers and artists – who are putting recycled trash to use as part of its practices is rising in the wake of Lebanon’s garbage crisis. While government action is piecemeal, if at all, it is the citizens of Lebanon that are taking charge of the environmental issues that affect them as well as the land they call “home”.

Cedar Environmental has been building recycling plants in Beirut since 2009. Last September the organisation launched a new zero-waste facility in Beit Mery, around 9 miles east of Beirut. The facility processes about a tonne of municipal waste for $62. Sukleen processed the same amount for $130.

Founded by environmental engineer Ziad Abichaker, the organisation says it takes results for the government to stand up and see that recycling and waste management makes “good financial sense for the municipality”.

His company’s zero-waste facility offers a solution where garbage is taken off the street for “half the price” as it were.

The number of citizen-operated initiatives in Lebanon to solve the waste crisis is inspiring and shows a shift in consciousness among many residents. “Nobody accepts the old practices any more,” Ziad Abichaker told Deutsche Well (DW).

Lebanon’s waste crisis has forced municipalities to introduce recycling, and as the citizens rise in their unified approach to the environmental issues and concerns, the government will have to act on it regardless.

For more information on Lebanon’s citizen-based initiatives, check Recycle Beirut, Recycle Lebanon and Cedar Environmental

Rosalind Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She is a writer who specialises in sustainable lifestyle and living, wellbeing, music and arts. Rosalind also works as a counsellor, intuitive reader and spiritual life coach helping people to become who they truly are and manifest their heart & soul’s desires into their lives: www.rosalindmedea.com

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