Recycle Beirut - Effecting change from a warehouse
Though the city is known for its elegance, Beirut has one unfortunate blemish: piles of waste on the streets that aren’t picked up. After residents took to the streets in 2015, it soon became clear that this failure in public services was due to obscure governmental businesses. “Recycle Beirut” is now taking the waste problem literally into its own hands and at the same time helping to tackle Lebanon’s refugee problem. Read More
It’s the taxi drivers that open your heart to a country. Ghazi Ghadban has made it his mission to ensure his guests exit his cab with a good impression of Lebanon. “There are lots of problems here: traffic, waste, refugees”, he says. “But I still came back to live in Lebanon. I love my country; people here - leaving the politicians out - are very friendly and very clever.”
Outside the window, what some call the Paris of Arabia is passing by: Skyscrapers with high-end condominiums next to old 19th century villas, elegant businessmen having lunch in the bistros and Philippine maids taking dogs on walks in the parks. The city is as breathtaking as the carefully made-up divas behind the wheels of the Land Rovers, if not for this little blemish: piles of rubble, bottles, and food scraps on almost every corner.
“You stink” - protesting the waste problem
Waste management wasn’t a big topic in Lebanon until last year, when the piles garbage literally piled up over people’s heads. Until 2015, the city’s waste was the business of the Averda company, the country’s only meaningful waste management operator, with its Sukleen and Sukomi subsidiaries. Of the estimated 6,500 tons of municipal solid waste produced each day in Lebanon, Sukleen and Sukomi claimed to take care of around 3,000 tons.
The dominance of this one company can be explained by the financial and political interests in the profitable garbage business. Since it began operating in 1994, Sukleen saw its contract get renewed three times, each time without an open tender, but with rising collection and processing fees paid by tax money from the Independent Municipal Fund.
With an estimated income of 170 Million USD per year (150 USD/ton), Sukleen is said to be one of the best-earning waste managing companies in the world.
Despite its exorbitant prices, Sukleen kept waste management simple: It collected the waste in the Beirut area as well as in the Mount Lebanon governorate, and dumped it in exactly one landfill south of Beirut and close to the city Naameh. With little to no downstream processing, the waste caused a terrible stench and health problems for nearby citizens. As the name suggests, sooner or later a landfill is full. The Naameh landfill seemed to reach capacity in 2008, but Sukleen kept using it until July 2015, when Naameh’s citizens, tired of being everybody’s trash dump, protested outside the landfill’s gates, making sure it closed for good this time.
Although they were well aware of the landfill’s overcapacity and had plenty of time to address the problem, neither Sukleen nor the government really had thought of a plan B for when Naameh was shut down. Sukleen simply decided to suspend waste collection in the summer of 2015, which resulted in a country and especially a capital covered in piles of garbage. In August 2015, the “You stink” grassroots movement inspired more than 200, 000 people to take to the streets and demand an economical and environmental plan for Lebanon’s waste management.
“The good things don’t come easy at all, but you can do good yourself.”
What followed the garbage crisis is best summarized by taxi driver Ghazi as he stops in front of a large, dark garage entrance in the southern suburb of Ouzai - no more Land Rovers, but a lot more trash. “You must catch the good things in life,” he says. “The good things don’t come easy at all, but you can do good yourself.” He doesn’t know that what waits at the end of the dark entrance will prove him right: A warehouse labyrinth with low ceilings, neon lights, roaring machines and more trash. But this time, it is being sorted into different piles.
Surprisingly the smell in the warehouse is not that bad. On the wall arrows with “glass” and “plastics” in English and Arabic point the way. Five women are sorting the trash while chatting with a group of foreigners. One tries out some sentences in English, while the others laugh and correct her. “Recycle Beirut” is printed on their black aprons.
The idea for Recycle Beirut came to Sam Kazak and a friend in 2014. In recycling, they saw an environmental-friendly alternative to the exhausted landfill method. But there was no recycling culture in Lebanon, meaning that neither private households nor businesses were in the habit of sorting their trash. This didn’t mean that there weren’t recycling plants.
While waste was piling up on the streets, the Lebanese recycling companies had actually been imported sorted waste to keep their factories going. To Sam, it was obvious what was going wrong: “Recycling wasn’t working, since the sorted trash wasn’t being collected. This is where we come in”.
Sam didn’t have a background in waste management or business. The UAE-born Palestinian had been working as an IT engineer. The Recycle Beirut team did a lot of research to understand the waste market. “We became friends with the people who collect the trash at night. They showed us the parts of the waste that were useful, where they leave the trash, how much they made out of it,” Sam recalls. “We soon saw that the market for recycling was really big in Lebanon. And since recycling was so little known, there was not much competition.” It took them until early 2015 to prepare the logistics, find a warehouse, get the right machines, the trucks, and - most time consuming of all - fight bureaucracy to have their new company registered.
Today, Recycle Beirut handles around 2 to 3 tons per day, which doesn’t seem like much compared with Sukleen’s 3,000 tons per day. But these 2-3 tons include recycled waste, sorted by private households themselves: People sign up on the website to have their sorted trash picked up. Then Recycle Beirut worker create a grouping for each area and set a pick up schedule for the three trucks. What started with collections from a dozen homes one year ago has grown to around 1,100 homes and businesses today, numbers that represent the increasing consciousness for recycling in Beirut.
Raising awareness of recycling is not the only impact Recycle Beirut is aiming for. Their second objective is to provide jobs for Syrian refugees. Lebanon has faced an influx of 1.1 million refugees in the past few years, which amounts to about 20 percent of the Lebanese population. Syrians have become the biggest refugee group, surpassing Palestinian refugees, of which there are an estimated 400,000. The danger of demographic change might explain the strong sentiments Lebanese have recently shown against Syrians, who face working restrictions and curfews. According to Amnesty International, funding shortages mean the most vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon receive just 0.70 USD a day for food assistance, well below the UN’s 1.90 USD poverty line.
Recycle Beirut tries help by employing Syrian refugees. All 17 employees are from Syria, including the five women in the warehouse: “When we first came to Lebanon, we thought it would only be for a month,” 36-year old Gharam, originally from Damascus region, recalls. But the situation in Syria worsened and they ended up staying. Gharam and her family endured four very boring and isolated years, since she wasn’t allowed to work or move around much. Her aunt Oula eventually found work at Recycle Beirut. She told her relatives and five of them, including Gharam, ended up starting there nine months ago. For six hours a day, they sort the waste, which includes everything but organic trash, which explains the relatively good smell in the warehouse.
For today, their work is done and the women sprawl on the sofas in a corner behind the garbage piles and begin all talking at once: “The vibes here in the Beirut suburb are not good for us.”; “If we stay home, we don’t feel like we are part of society!”; “We want more money for our children!”; “We want to be independent women!” The corner serves as a DIY classroom where they receive English lessons twice a week. “The English lessons are good for our future and the help us to make friends from other nations”, Gharam says. She is referring to the volunteers who help out here. This evening it is Dutch volunteer Liselot’s turn to learn Arabic. Gharam is at the cardboard chalkboard and conjugates “to like” in Arabic, which Liselot helplessly tries to pronounce, causing the women to laugh so hard they cry.
“We are trying to help the government get a handle on the garbage crisis and provide jobs for refugees, but they are insisting on impossible rules to let up operate,” Sam sighs. The Syrian drivers have not been given permission to drive and Recycle Beirut has to pay fees every time one of their three trucks is stopped. Very counter-productive, keeping in mind that to this day the government has failed to come up with a feasible solution for either the refugee crisis or the waste problem. There have been open bids for new waste operators, and ideas of exporting the trash have been floated, but since all those plans have failed, the government is now building a massive ocean-side dump for waste in the shantytown of Beirut and plans to temporarily reopen the Naameh landfill.
In the meantime, Recycle Beirut has already come up with another recycling idea, which Sam presents during a “product placement workshop” in a fancy glass building in the Beirut Digital District later that evening. “We want to find something that creates more revenue streams and also uses recycled material,” he explains to the volunteers, who gather on the garishly colored cushions at his feet. Since the only recycling plant for colored glass was destroyed in the 2006 war, Recycle Beirut has not been able to proceed in processing it. So they started making tiles out of construction waste and colored glass, and are now looking for ways to sell these tiles. The engineers, architects and entrepreneurs participating in the workshop quickly get into a passionate debate on marketing strategies, price and potential buyers for the tiles. At the end of the evening, all agree on one thing: The marketing of the tile must go ahead and create more awareness for recycling. Sam looks a little tired but he is satisfied. “There have been some good ideas they can work with,” he says.
The workshop is slowly breaking up, the machines of the warehouse have been shut down for the night, and taxi driver Ghazi Ghadban is already back in his village in the mountains. With his unique taxi-driver philosophy, he puts into words best what Sam, the Syrian women, and the workshop participants have been doing by taking their faith into their own hands. “I am 70 years old,” he said, “I never trust any of those political things. But I will never think negative!”