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A University Wades Into the Lebanese Garbage Crisis

BEIRUT—An American University of Beirut team has tried to solve a political and environmental crisis that has Lebanon in its grip—garbage.

The team has recommended a solution that will be familiar to citizens of many other countries—require homeowners and businesses to sort out recyclable materials at the source.

Lebanon produces about 3000 tons of waste per day, and the cost to get rid of a ton without recycling is about $140. Recycling could achieve savings equivalent to $28 per ton, says Farouk El Merhebi, director of the environmental health, safety, and risk management department at the American University of Beirut.

The proposal is an example of a university throwing itself headlong into a sticky policy problem in its home country. In the case of Lebanon that also means, as citizens joke, a country that seemingly functions without a government and that has not had a president in a year and a half.

Amid the continuous accumulation of garbage in the streets of the Lebanese capital, and the absence of any official governmental solution, the American University of Beirut formed a team of 60 professors and 16 employees and students in August. They worked together on nine research areas and on nine projects covering the many waste-management related problems. They created surveys about diseases and pests, and developed several campaigns to reduce waste production and waste disposal by individuals and municipalities.

“The trash crisis forced each of us to try to find a solution,” said Najat Saliba, a professor of chemistry, the director of the university’s Nature Conservation Center and head of the university’s work team during an October 29 workshop to review the team’s first results.

“As an educational body, we should contribute through the exchange of knowledge, and building a network between the non-governmental organizations, municipalities, and experts,” she said, “so we can together launch effective scientifically evidence-based initiatives.”

The garbage crisis broke out last July, after a main landfill closed, and the government failed to find a solution to the crisis.  A process to choose among six companies for collecting and treating the waste was cancelled, after they all submitted very expensive proposals, according to official statements.

The government’s failure to solve the crisis led thousands of Lebanese to take to the streets to protest. But after security forces arrested a large number of activists, the protests weakened. As winter comes, the streets of some urban areas have turned into rivers where garbage bags float, as a result of broken sewers and accumulating rainwater.

“We have to find balanced solutions that are practicably possible, environment-friendly, of reasonable costs, and socially appropriate,” said Saliba.

The university team is working on research to determine the scientific facts surrounding the problem so they can be used to develop new policies.

“Recycling is a mandatory task, and not a commercial profession,” Saliba said. Any solution, he said, should include the principles of reducing waste production, re-using waste when possible in the home, recycling, organic fertilization, sanitary landfills, or, as a last resort,  controlled incinerators..

Under the university plan, individuals would sort their household garbage in two bags, putting organic waste in black bags and recyclables in blue bags. After this, municipalities would collect the trash bags to resort the recyclable materials, such as plastic, metal, papers and cardboards, and glass. Then the municipality would treat all the recyclable materials and compost organic materials before burying or burning the remains that cannot be recycled or composted.

“Waste management requires a great deal of will and change in behavior,” Saliba said pointing out to the need of urging people to reduce their consumption, and to re-use household materials to reduce the amount of waste that has to be sorted or recycled.

“Sorting at the source is the best solution, and the least harmful to the environment,” said Ali Marwa, an assistant researcher at the AUB’s team.

May Massoud, of the environmental health department at the American University, thinks that “The approach adopted by the work team is a comprehensive and dynamic one, and capable of adapting to each village’s needs, in terms of space, population density, and other local practices.” But, she said, “We cannot choose a single solution that fits all.”

“The ideal scenario is teamwork between municipalities,” said Saliba, who refuses to discuss the effect of the political situation on the crisis. “It would be very useful, as it would allow for the municipalities to share the financial and administrative burden of transferring the waste and the necessary materials, as well as to establish and operate centers for sorting, recycling, and composting.”


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