How composting is solving Lebanon’s waste crisis and benefiting the environment and economy

Written by: Elizabeth Fitt | Published:
Compost is made from the organic components of household waste

The rooftop of a building in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut is perhaps not the first place anyone would expect to find a lush, green riot of veggies growing against the backdrop of one of the Middle East’s most polluted cities.

But here we are – casually munching on succulent radishes – radishes whose existence stems from a very different sort of riot and whose future is opening up prospects for women taking control of their families’ finances. And it all came from waste.

Lebanon’s relationship with waste has been tumultuous over the past few years. Between 1997 and 2014, most household waste went to a single landfill site – Naameh Landfill, in a southern suburb. Naameh was originally opened as a post-civil-war interim solution, with capacity for two million tons of waste.

By the time it was officially considered closed, on 17 July 2015, following 18 months of intense civil protest against appalling living conditions in surrounding residential areas, the site contained 12 million tons and waste, towering 20 meters above ground level.

But the protests didn’t stop there. Pledges from the government to implement an emergency waste management programme did not materialise after the closure, and waste began to pile up on the streets of the capital, Beirut. This prompted mass demonstrations that quickly escalated into full-scale riots as the government’s failure to manage waste, seen as a symptom of much deeper systemic issues, inflamed anger.

Exacerbated by the stench of the accumulating rubbish, protests intensified, with rubber bullets and tear gas used against demonstrators. Calling for an ecological solution to the waste crisis and the downfall of a political system that had failed to provide them with basic services, protesters continued regardless, under the slogan “Til'it Ree'hitkom” – literally “you stink” – and Beirut’s waste crisis became an uprising.

The Lebanese government reacted by pledging to follow a four-year plan to come up with an integrated waste management system for Lebanon, beginning in March 2016. So far this has consisted of dumping waste into two new landfill sites, Burj Hammoud in north Beirut and Costa Brava to the south of the city.

Both are already almost at capacity. A land reclamation initiative contracted out to Khoury Contracting has also cordoned off a 550,000 square metre area of coastal water near the town of Saida and dumped untreated waste removed from landfill sites directly into the water. Additionally, plans for a waste incineration system are being pushed ahead despite concerns and recommendations against such a move from leading environmental experts.

Tired of the government’s failure to implement a viable solution, many Lebanese have taken matters into their own hands. Tens of commercial and NGO recycling initiatives have sprung up in an effort to ameliorate waste issues and find alternatives to inaction and the controversial incineration project.

Ziad Abichaker, engineer and CEO of Cedar Environmental, an initiative focused on solid waste recycling, is a key player here, developing and pushing alternative solutions to Beirut’s waste crisis.

Having researched dynamic composting techniques at Rutgers University, Abichaker developed a patented, accelerated method to turn organic components of household waste into class A compost in just three days. He has set this initiative, to turn the 63% of Beirut’s waste that is organic into compost, in motion at his recycling plants and his efforts are now literally providing grounding for a growing number of agricultural and social projects.

Established in 1948 to accommodate refugees fleeing Galilee in northern Palestine, the Bourj El Barajneh refugee camp houses an estimated 20,000 people in an area originally meant for 10,000. It has the reputation of being one of the most crowded camps in Lebanon, so there is not a lot of room to grow vegetables.

As well as space issues, there is no earth in these tiny winding alleyways, and no spare water to keep plants alive. And yet, with Abichaker’s innovation, funding from the Norwegian Embassy, and tons of household rubbish from Beirut residents, people here have worked together to make the highly unlikely a delicious reality.

Planting new seeds

Emerging into the sunshine from a dark stairwell within the camp, the ancient city’s streets sprawl out far below. It is quite a view. But the foreground is even more breath-taking – row upon row of greens layer the tops and sides of an array of “vertical garden” planters. Cabbages, lettuces, corn, courgettes, tomatoes, chard, spinach, onions, garlic and radishes cover this roof-top. Up to 3,000 herbs and vegetables can be found up here, high above the overcrowded bustle of camp life.

Containers made from compressed, otherwise unrecyclable plastics, sorted from Beirut’s household waste and formed into durable “eco-boards” by Cedar Environmental, house the plants.

And their roots grow in compost made 100% from the organic components of household waste produced by Beirutis. Abichaker didn’t stop there – he has also devised an innovative irrigation system to collect and pipe water condensed by air conditioning units on surrounding buildings, to keep the veggies alive in Lebanon’s arid climate.

Destined for the pot, these vegetables will be harvested by an all-woman crew from Soufra (“dining table” in Arabic), a catering company started by Miriam Shaar as an initiative of the Women’s Program Association (WPA). This NGO works within the camp to promote empowerment, independence and improved quality of life for women.

Downstairs in the kitchen, oregano is being picked over, onions simmer on the stove and a large bowl of parsley waits to be turned into Tabouleh. Shaar, along with most of her employees, is a generational refugee who grew up in Bourj El Barajneh. The atmosphere in the kitchen is happy and relaxed, there is plenty of banter and for these women, being part of Soufra looks like it is achieving WPA’s goals.

“For me being here means many things,” says catering manager Rafaa Khalil. “I have the chance to go outside of my home, to make good friends, and make an income for my family.” As she plants onions, placing each bulb carefully into the rich compost, 24-year-old Mariam Issa, who works with the WPA and was born in the camp, explains how the garden is empowering the women of Soufra by giving them better budgetary control and making them more self-sufficient.

While initially uninspired by the idea of an organic vegetable garden, Issa changed her mind when she saw the results. “It is amazing. I think other people should do this. I would like to see the whole of Bourj El Barajneh camp, the whole of Lebanon, doing this! People can have their own produce and reduce their living costs,” she enthuses.

The process

High above the city, in the Mount Lebanon range, lies the town of Beit Mery, home to one of Abichaker’s composting plants. Twenty tons of Beirut’s household waste comes in here every day, and six tons per day of class A compost goes out. Non-organic waste is sorted and 100% goes to specialised recycling plants elsewhere in Lebanon.

A large shed houses piles of untreated, fresh household waste – Abichaker emphasises the importance of sourcing uncompressed waste, describing this as one of the key issues for good recycling. His patented process begins with a human sorting line. Abichaker’s employees – mainly Syrian refugees – man a conveyor belt, picking the waste into categories including tin, green glass, transparent glass, aluminium, PET plastics, textiles and plastic bags.

“This is an opportunity for us to work. And it is rewarding work because we feel like we are cleaning up and making the environment healthier,” says operations manager Ahmad Berawi. What is left after sorting ends up in an enormous rotating drum with a six-ton capacity, where it stays for three days.

Rotation occurs to ensure thorough mixing of waste materials and added enzymes, the exact nature of which are “an industrial secret of the operation”, according to Abichaker. This creates an exothermic biochemical reaction as aerobic action breaks down the organic material. The output goes through two screenings that progressively filter out larger pieces of matter, until only the smallest particulates are left, getting rid of all the impurities and leaving only compost.

“It’s so pure, it’s so clean, it’s class A,” Abichaker says. He explains how Cedar Environmental regularly has its compost tested at the American University of Beirut’s environmental lab, comparing the results to EU standards for organic agriculture – not because EU standards apply in Lebanon, but because he wants to produce the highest-quality product.

Aside from the obvious benefits of Abichaker’s work, it is also profitable. “If you run it properly, if you produce good-quality, clean compost which you can sell, this is a viable business proposition,” he explains. Municipalities that bring waste to his sites pay US$65 per ton for processing services, and the compost sells for US$100 per ton.

Abichaker is not impressed with the incinerator proposal. He feels the Lebanese government is trying to railroad municipalities into thinking there is no viable alternative. Currently he is in the process of showcasing an alternative plan: “No incineration, no landfilling, just as much sorting, recycling and composting as possible.

“We see waste as a resource and we’re going to take that resource and we’re going to valourise it, and we’re going to create a lot of economy-enhancing activity, job creation and organic agriculture.”

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