Out of sight, out of mind: Lebanon expands landfill to clear garbage from streets

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Earlier this month, the specter of another Lebanese garbage crisis loomed as mountains of trash once again piled up in the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon.

The overspill of garbage cans onto curbsides followed the closure of the giant open-air landfill on Beirut’s northern coast on April 30 after reaching capacity.

The last garbage crisis hit in 2015 – that prompted the popular You Stink movement – when a primary landfill site closed, and government authorities did nothing to implement a contingency plan. Lebanon still suffers from lackluster waste management facilities, with 90 percent of waste ending up in landfills that emit toxic gases breathed in by the neighboring population.

A protester, wearing a garbage bag and holding up a sign, takes part in a protest against what demonstrators say is the government's failure to resolve a crisis over rubbish disposal in Beirut, Lebanon March 12, 2016. (Reuters)
A protester, wearing a garbage bag and holding up a sign, takes part in a protest against what demonstrators say is the government's failure to resolve a crisis over rubbish disposal in Beirut, Lebanon March 12, 2016. (Reuters)

The Burj Hammoud-Jdeideh landfill was originally predicted to fill up in 2019, but a nearly 30 percent reduction in daily waste production following mass protests and the coronavirus lockdown delayed its shutdown, according to Samar Khalil, a member of the Waste Management Coalition that was formed in the wake of the 2015 crisis.

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In response to the recent overflow, the government Tuesday approved the expansion of the site by a height of 1.5 meters – a decision that has been condemned by environmentalists and local Members of Parliament as yet another stop-gap measure in Lebanon’s long history of poor waste management policy.

Tipping Point

The mountains of waste emit a foul stink for kilometers around – an invisible indicator of an altogether more deadly emission. The Burj Hammoud-Jdeideh landfill is currently 16 meters in height and accepts around 1,400 tons of waste every day.

According to a 2017 study published in the Environmental Health Journal, people working in the vicinity of the landfill were more likely to suffer from respiratory, dermatological, and gastrointestinal disease.

“It has become an infected region, you can no longer live here,” said Elias Hankach, an MP for the Metn district where Jdeideh is located.

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Each year, the dump is estimated to leak 120,000 tons of hazardous leachates into the Mediterranean Sea, and nearby fishermen have been forced further out to sea to make their catch.

With another 1.5 meters of waste set to be piled on as the government promises to find alternative solutions, experts are worried about the ability of the concrete walls to contain it, and the potential health and environmental impact.

“There is a major concern around the integrity of the entire landfill,” said Khalil, adding that the landfill was hastily constructed without an economic impact assessment, as the government rushed to end the 2015 crisis.

“Waste management has always been a case of patching up a crisis, and that pattern has not changed,” Najat Saliba, an atmospheric chemist and director of the Nature Conservation Center at the American University of Beirut, told Al Arabiya English.

“[This] is a completely reactive measure,” said Khalil. “They knew they had a problem, and waited until the last minute.”

The environment minister did not respond to a request for comment on the decision.

Beirut’s two controversial coastal landfills, Burj Hammoud-Jdeideh to the north and Costa Brava to the south, were constructed as quick-fix solutions to the 2015 garbage crisis, when trash filled the streets of Beirut due to the closure of the Naameh waste dump and ensuing suspension of waste collection.

Thousands took to the streets in protests that saw the foundation of many now-well-established civil society groups and environmental coalitions.

The landfills, which together absorb waste from Beirut and the adjacent Mount Lebanon governorate, had a predicted lifespan of four years, to give the government enough time to find a more sustainable solution.

Five years on, despite the passage of a decentralized waste management law in 2018, the government has failed to implement the law, instead prolonging the use of hazardous open-air landfills.

The expansion of the Jdeideh site is yet another iteration of Lebanon’s kick-the-can-down-the-road approach to waste, removing what gathers in public view and dumping it elsewhere.

“All they want is for there not to be a scandal and for it to blow up in their faces [like in 2015],” Hankach said.

“They will do everything just to make the streets appear clean.”

The more waste, the better

Those who spoke with Al Arabiya English argue that the expansion of the landfill is not only a result of poor planning and incompetence, but also a reflection of the corruption and cronyism that has become emblematic of Lebanon’s waste management sector.

A general view shows a garbage-filled area in Beirut, Lebanon December 22, 2015. (File photo: Reuters)
A general view shows a garbage-filled area in Beirut, Lebanon December 22, 2015. (File photo: Reuters)

The multi-million dollar contracts for Beirut’s two coastal landfills were awarded to the businessmen allies of some of the country’s most powerful politicians. Jihad al-Arab, whose company runs the Costa Brava site, is close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and Dany Khoury, in charge of Burj Hammoud-Jdeideh, is said to be close to President Michel Aoun.

“One of the major problems is the privatization of solid waste management in Lebanon,” said Paul Abi Rached, the founder of the TERRE Liban environmental group.

“The solutions are there,” Abi Rached said, explaining that the amount of waste entering landfills could be reduced by two-thirds simply through effective waste sorting, composting, and recycling.

“It is just not in the interest of the waste contractors.”

As contractors are paid for waste removed by the ton, the more garbage a landfill receives, the more money they receive. A December article in The New York Times reported that the contractors in charge of the Costa Brava landfill in south Beirut add water to garbage containers to boost their weight.

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“There is no intention to solve this issue once and for all,” Hankach said. “The people in power, and those behind them, do not want that.”

The cabinet of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, formed after mass protests forced the resignation of Saad Hariri’s government, vowed to listen to the calls of demonstrators, including addressing the issue of waste management.

However, by continuing in the policy of temporary measures and directing Lebanon’s waste to landfills, the government has so far failed to keep their promise.

“Instead, they proved they will simply execute the agenda of the mafia in Lebanon,” Abi Rached said.

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