Waste Management Conflict (Starting January 25, 2014)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014 to Monday, August 31, 2015

Historical background

The root of the Lebanese waste management crises as it is known today can be traced back to 1994, when the Lebanese Council for Development and Reconstruction contracted Sukleen, a private waste-management company, to collect trash in Beirut. Sukleen was contracted with an estimated $3.6 million, approximated to be twice the amount which municipalities would have charged had they been given the responsibility of collecting trash in their areas. Because localities were not mandated to handle their waste and due to the lack of a national waste strategy regarding trash collection and disposal, the trash crisis was only temporarily solved with Sukleen’s contract. In fact, one may argue that contracting Sukleen allowed the parliament to use the company as a scapegoat to defer passing sustainable policy regarding waste.

Even so, it is important to note that Sukleen’s waste management process was far from ideal, despite the fact that the government, through their contract, granted the company monopoly over the national collection of waste. For one, Sukleen’s critics question the company’s imposed fee  of $140 per ton of garbage collected upon the Lebanese government, which is significantly higher than global fees. This fee is seen as particularly outrageous as Sukleen does little to treat the waste, but rather strictly collects garbage and dumps it in designated landfills. Furthermore, Sukleen’s critics often point to its strong links to the Hariri family as an example of corruption and patronage within Lebanon, given Sukleen’s monopolising position in waste management. Moreover, civil society organisations (CSOs) maintain that Sukleen’s waste management plan does not take ecological issues such as air, sea or land pollution into consideration, as the company does not put any CSO recommendations into practice, and disposes waste via landfills, rather than through a sorting and recycling process.

In 1996, the Lebanese government gave Sukleen permission to open a temporary landfill in Naameh that would receive waste from Beirut and Mount Lebanon, until a more permanent solution was found to the waste crisis. During its lifespan, Naameh received around 3,000 tons of solid waste everyday, thrice the amount it was designed for. The deadline for the closure of the landfill was deferred several times, until its closure on July 17, 2015, despite the protests of residents as the government could not agree on a long-term waste management plan due to political deadlock. In turn, Sukleen contracts were also renewed every few years until Naamh’s closure.

In July 2015, the government chose not to renew Sukleen’s contract and instead opened bids for new waste removal partners. However, throughout this months long process, uncollected garbage began to pile up in streets across Lebanon. Moreover, activists noted that the list of bids were all by firms connected to politicians in power asking for exorbitant rates, similar to Sukleen. Following increasing pressure from protest movements gathering the support of thousands, the bids were cancelled and the cabinet referred the problem to a ministerial committee.

On September 9, 2015, the government approved a waste management plan proposed by the Minister of Agriculture, Akram Chehayeb. It consisted of the following measures: decentralizing waste management duties by allocating them to local municipalities; reopening the Naameh landfill for seven days; renewing Sukleen’s contract for eighteen additional months; rehabilitating a garbage dump in Burj Hammoud and transforming it into a landfill; upgrading a landfill in Akkar to a sanitary landfill, and opening a new landfill in Masnaa along Lebanon’s eastern mountain rage. The plan was criticised by activists for failing to take into account the environmental consequences of re-opening or upgrading the landfills, although the plan did concede to one of civil society’s key demands-- setting a long-term plan for the decentralisation of waste management, while taking into consideration the funding needed to carry out such duties, as well as the environmental experts and consultants needed to help municipalities shape their procedures.

Description of events

As the Naameh landfill reached its capacity, closing on July 17, 2015, and the Sukleen contract came to an end on the same day, the crisis erupted. Garbage started to accumulate in residential areas, mainly in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, pushing local residents to burn waste bags. As the resulting toxic fumes exacerbated air pollution, civil society actors started to mobilise through demonstrations and demands aimed at the government.

Mobilization in the first few days mostly took the form of spontaneous roadblocks, often accompanied with the burning of trash carried out by local residents while activists called for demonstrations in downtown Beirut to protest the government politics regarding waste management. Likewise, people mobilised considerably on social media like Facebook and Twitter, founding new movements and political/social groups. These movements ultimately came together in a large protest that took place on July 25th, 2015, with over 1,000 demonstrators demanding a long-term solution to the waste crisis. However, what began as a public outcry over the ongoing garbage crisis slowly transformed into a platform through which citizens expressed their concerns over the Lebanese political system and its poor public services, in general.

The garbage crisis itself came to reflect the deep-rooted decay prevailing in the Lebanese political system. Twenty-five years after the ratification of the Taif agreement - which put an end to the Lebanese Civil War - the lack of government provided services, such as running water, electricity, garbage management, and social security, remained a continuous and unresolved issue. Under the slogan “You Stink” (tol’it rihetkum),  the trash crisis movement’s protesters denounced the absence of public services as well as the clientelistic and corrupt political elite, and demanded a durable and ecological solution to the waste crisis and the reform or downfall of the Lebanese political system. This call for “the downfall of the regime” (“isqat al-nitham”) echoed a Lebanese movement in 2011 calling for the downfall of the confessional system (“isqat al-nitham al-ta’ifeh”). This movement emerged in the vein of the popular uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring.

Protesters claim that the waste crisis has shed light on the widespread corruption and clientelistic practices within the Lebanese government, leading many civil society actors to call for the resignation of the current cabinet. Since August 8 2015, protesters have marched to Martyrs’ Square at recurring demonstrations, condemning widespread corruption and calling for the resignation of the Minister of Environment Mohammed al-Machnouq, as his position, in essence, holds him accountable for solving the waste crises. Several protests and sit-ins have taken place since. Some included physical clashes with the internal security forces and riot police, the most violent of which took place between August 22 and 23 in 2015, when over 20,000 protesters marched to Martyrs’ Square in Beirut and were met with bullets and water cannons, leading to a heavy number of protester injuries. This, in turn, exacerbated the tensions between the protesters and the government, while also ushering in smaller but regular sit-ins. Since, solidarity movements from NGOs have since gained momentum, aiming to protect protesters from arbitrary arrests and condemning state violence through these arbitrary arrests, and also unfair treatment, such as abusive drug testing of activists

Evolution of the mobilisation

Protests that took place on August 22 and 23 not only witnessed riots between the security forces and the protesters but also amongst protesters themselves. Protesters that used violence against the security forces and other demonstrators were seen as infiltrators by the dominant “You Stink” movement. This violence led to a number of injuries of both civilians and internal security forces. Protesters held the Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities Nohad al-Machnouq and the Minister of Environment Mohammed al-Machnouq accountable for the abuse perpetrated by the security forces and for the failure to manage the waste crisis. On August 24, security forces erected a wall in front of the Serail to stop the protesters from getting closer to it. However, the decision seems to have been taken without Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s knowledge, who ordered the removal of the “wall of shame” less than 24 hours after it was built.  

The apparent street mobilisation and calls for government resignation led to increasingly violent clashes between the protestors and the riot police and internal security forces, which in turn has contributed to additional daily protests, sit-ins, and marches. Most notably, the movement succeeded in bringing together diverse sections and confessions of Lebanese society, including the youth and middle and upper class society. The multi-confession and multi-class characteristic of the movement is undeniable as these groups of individuals unite under common grievances against the government and the desire for greater justice.

In the context of social mobilisations in Lebanon, this movement carries an exceptional status, especially among previous protests addressing socioeconomic issues. That is, 20,000 people are reported to have joined the protests on August 22 and 23 — a modest number compared to the March 14 protests in 2005 following former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination, but a significant number nevertheless compared to similar demonstrations on social and economic issues.

Though just a few months old, the waste management movement initially launched by the You Stink campaign soon merged with other emerging groups/movements wanting to tackle the issues brought up through protests. These groups, however, were related to already existing political and social movements and parties such as “badna nhasib” (“We demand accountability), “tol’it rihetkun, al harakat al tas’hihiyat” (“You stink, corrective movement”), “‘al chare’” (“To the street”), “ Youth of the 22nd of August” (“chabab 22 Ab”), and “al-cha’b yurid” (“The people want”). These groups’ beliefs range from the nationalistic right to the radical and anti-system left. Interestingly, some of these groups emerged to distance themselves from the You Stink organisers, who have been criticised for adopting “limited and reformist” demands, and for requesting that the internal security forces arrest protesters who have been reportedly described as “thugs” and “infiltrators.” This is also suggestive of an old but persisting cleavage between civil society organisations, with bloggers and other cyber-activists as the main organisers on the one hand, and more politicised collectives and groups on the other.  

Clean-up Plan Launch

As the garbage crisis carried on into 2016, You Stink protesters, joined by other civil society actors such as We Want Accountability, continued to mobilise, calling on authorities to be more transparent in their plan to deal with Lebanon’s garbage. However, as the government kept waste out of Beirut, pushing it to the city’s peripheries instead, authorities were able to tranquilise the public from mobilising in great numbers.

Despite this, on March 12th, 2016, You Stink, in collaboration with We Want Accountability and the Kataeb Party, organised a “Final Warning March,”   The march was held in Beirut and attracted thousands of protesters. At the protest, environmental activists called for the creation of recycling centers and expressed disapproval towards the establishment of new landfills, which they deemed as temporary, environmentally-harmful solutions.

During the march, the cabinet simultaneously held a special session meant to find an end to the garbage crisis. By the end of the meeting, the government had agreed on a 4 year temporary solution to start handling the trash overtaking Lebanon’s streets and riverbanks. This also allowed the government ample time to find a sustainable solution to the crisis while not having to further deal with the problem at hand. In a final statement from the cabinet, Information Minister Ramzi Joreige proposed the establishment of sanitary landfills and waste-treatment and sorting plants which would be developed in accordance with scientific and environmental rulings and in coordination with affected municipalities. A day later, Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk revealed that, “the plan [was] to sort, process, recycle, and derive fuel from the waste,” and then landfill what remained.

The plan, coined the “Chehayyeb Plan” after Agricultural Minister Akram Chehayyeb, re-opened the previously closed Naameh landfill for 60 days in order to accept the old garbage flooding the country since Naameh’s closure. For every ton of waste dumped in Naameh, $6 would be paid, deducted from Naameh’s portion of the Independent Municipal Fund (IMF). To ameliorate this blow, Chehayeb noted that in turn, the government would capture the methane gas released from the trash to produce 6 megawatts of electricity for surrounding areas free of charge and would reward the area with $11 to $12 million in development funds.

In addition, the Chehayyeb Plan called for two new temporary landfills to be established in Burj Hammoud and Costa Brava, east and south of Beirut respectively, although at the time, the minister of Agriculture did not specify when these landfills would open. The Burj Hammoud landfill would accept waste from Metn and was said to only accept 1,200 tons of trash per day. While the plan did not attach such specifications to the Costa Brava landfill, apart from receiving waste from the Southern Suburbs of Beirut and other parts of the district, it did specify that a wall would first be built in order to reclaim land from the sea before establishing the dump.Beirut’s remaining waste would be taken to Sidon’s waste-treatment plant. Mount Lebanon’s Chouf and Aley district landfills would be determined at a later time, once local municipalities were consulted.

Notably, the cabinet agreement recognised that municipalities and municipal unions may manage their own waste treatment with funding from municipalities’ IMF. As part of its enticement program however, the government stated it would allocate $8 million annually to every municipality that chooses to open its own landfill, while $50 million would be designated over the next four years for development projects implemented in towns located near landfills.

The plan also outlined that until the Council for Development and Reconstruction could task companies they find competent with sweeping, collecting, transferring, sorting, treating, and then disposing waste in sanitary landfills, Sukleen and its partner company, Sukomi, would be in charge of collecting garbage. During this time, the Council would oversee a 2 month bidding process to find companies that are able to specially deal with municipalities’ specific waste needs. These companies would then be awarded contracts, paid through municipalities’ portions of the IMF, and replace Sukleen.

Ironically, the cabinet first tried to solve the country’s trash crisis by proposing the establishment of landfills across the country but this “solution” quickly dissolved as locals rejecting the landfills often clashed with internal security forces. A plan to export trash to Russia by Chehayab also fell through just a month prior as the plan was linked with allegations of fraud and corruption.

Implementation, Opposition, and Further Protest

Immediately after the cabinet released details of the clean-up plan, You Stink and We Want Accountability denounced the plan.They questioned why the government did not establish recycling plants and warned that there would be “surprise measures” by protesters. On March 13th, 2016, one day after the Cabinet’s decision, You Stink and other advocates attempted to block major roads leading to Beirut in protest of the establishment of new landfills. The security forces, however, successfully dispersed the group's’ attempts.

Almost one week later, on March 19th,  Naameh landfill was re-opened and over eight thousand tons of garbage were lifted within 24 hours. Meeting opposition from those living in the region complaining of high rates of illness and disease, after almost 20 years since the landfill’s establishment, the garbage was escorted by army and elite internal security force units. According to plan, the Naameh landfill permanently closed after two months on May 18, 2016 and is currently only being accessed  for “technical work related to increasing power generation capacity from 0.5 megawatts to 7 megawatts,” according to a statement released by Sukleen.

Meanwhile, the opening of the Costa Brava and Burj Hammoud landfills has also met opposition from local residents. In Costa Brava, activists have called the establishment an “environmental crime,” violating the Barcelona Convention which prohibits the establishment of landfills on the Mediterranean coast. Recognising this, residents of Choueifat mobilised to create a crisis cell to work on long-term resistance to the landfill as activists held multiple sit-ins against the establishment of the landfill. In Burj Hammoud, the Kataeb party held a 4 week long protest against the landfill, halting construction, suspending work and prohibiting trucks from entering the landfill multiple times throughout their demonstration. Most notably, 6 months after the announcement of the temporary plan, in September 2016, lawyers and activists filed a lawsuit against the state and private companies to block the establishment of both landfills. This lawsuit is still pending as garbage piles up in different areas of Metn, Beirut, and Mount Lebanon.   

Despite these efforts, waste continues to be brought to both the Burj Hammoud and Costa Brava landfills and placed in nearby storage lots to be transferred upon their completion. While the transfer of garbage to the Costa Brava and Bourj Hammoud landfill is being implemented according to the plan, trash from Chouf and Aley is being transferred to Naameh Landfill as the regions could not decide where to establish their own. This is because government and municipality authorities failed to determine a location for a landfill in Chouf and Aley after meeting opposition from Eqlim El-Kharroub residents and actors who refused the establishment of a landfill in Kssara El-Jiyyi.

Notably, though the bidding process was limited to competition among five companies related to political actors, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) awarded Al-Jihad Group the contract for the construction of the Costa Brava landfill in July 2016, while Khoury Contracting Co. was awarded the contract for Burj Hammoud landfill. Moreover, the CDR launched the first stage of a bid for the construction of thermal dissociation industries to qualify the companies which will participate in the final bid for the creation of incinerators, estimated to take 3 years to establish.

Who are the main actors?

Lebanese Government, Internal Security Forces, Citizens, Civil Society Actors, You Stink Campaign (طلعت ريحتكم), Sukleen.

Recycling initiatives

Weary of the authorities’ failure to launch green projects, local actors have decided to come together to promote recycling projects. The trash crisis gave these actors the opportunity to strengthen and shed light on their initiatives. Beyond finding a solution to this crisis, their efforts aimed at helping Lebanese citizens deeply reflect on their environment in order to raise awareness regarding environmentally damaging practices.

- Association l’Ecoute: The association is collecting “household and industrial waste” in order to finance its projects to serve the handicapped, “while helping at the ecological level.”

-Arcenciel: The association has decided to “collect recyclable waste free of charge.”

- Green Area: This association, located in Elissar, aims to inspire change in Lebanese people’s behaviors. By proposing reforms to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds regarding the treatment of waste, Green Area aspires to reach a fully ecological treatment for Lebanese waste.
-Beeatouna: The association recycles computers, air conditioners, and several kinds of chargers belonging to different forms of devices.  

-Chreek: The “social business” aims to “convert junk and non-recyclables” into new products with environmental value.

-Food Establishment Recycling Nutrients: F.E.R.N’s organizes the collection of waste and provides assistance to donate meals.

-Indevco Unipak Tissue Mill: The mill produces recyclable and recycled products in order to trigger an evolution in the Lebanese ways of consumption.

-Solicar: The company produces recycled paper and cardboard.

-Lefico: The company is a PET Polyester Stable Fiber Producer that recycles plastic bottles to produces PET flakes.

-Liban fonderies: Liban Fonderies recycles all kind of metals.

-Mimosa Sanitary Paper: Mimosa Sanitary Paper’s products are made using environmentally-friendly manufacturing principles. All their products are recyclable.

-Mohamad Tawil & Sons: The company buys and sells ferrous and non-ferrous scrap metal of all grades and recycles them.

-Recycle Beirut: A newly established company collecting waste (plastic, metal, paper, and glass) from households in Beirut and recycles them.

[Last updated on 21 October 2016]

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