Environmental awareness in Lebanon needs a cultural turn
When travelling in the Middle East I’m always struck by endless stretches of plastic bags abandoned along the streets. I’ve been wondering for long why nobody cared to pick them.
This is probably why I wasn’t surprised when, in the summer of 2015, foreign media suddenly discovered that Beirut was drowning in its own garbage. That’s a recurring event and, as far as I was concerned, it simply renewed the long standing question I’ve been asking around for years: Why has the region so little environmental awareness.
When focusing on Lebanon, the first remark one has to make is that the notable absence of institutions and the virtual lack of basic public services – from public health to a reliable supply of electricity – confines the environment to the bottom of anyone’s priority list.
During a Skype conversation with a Syrian-Canadian friend, Dana Kandalaft, an environmentalist who lived in Lebanon for some time, she revealed to me a very simple, yet mostly untold, truth: “When governments fail us, civil society jumps in.”
This is exactly what happened in Lebanon, the epitome of a tenuous and dysfunctional state where it took 29 months to elect a new president, after lengthy negotiations, unlikely alliances and dramatic twists.
The first story I wish to tell is set in the Lebanese capital. Recycle Beirut was born in 2014 thanks to Sam Kazak and Alexander McHugh. They collect recyclables (plastic, glass, paper, metal and wood) and sell them to recycling factories in Beirut area.
They serve around 700 customers collecting three to four tons of garbage per day. “I think that in Beirut area, the most densely populated area of Lebanon, the garbage production is around 3,000 tons per day,” explains Sam. “But I can’t be sure because it’s hard to find reliable figures.”
A study put together by the German cooperation in Lebanon estimated two million tons of garbage per year (2013.)
Every pick up costs 10 dollars. Add to this the revenues from the sale of the recyclables to the factories, but they’re very low. Fifty-five dollars for a ton of glass; 90 to 100 dollars for a ton of tin; 90 dollars for a ton of baled cartoon; 166 dollar for a ton of plastic; 50 dollars for a ton of anti shock plastic and 75 dollars for a ton paper.
This makes Recycle Beirut a very interesting initiative – praised in particular by UNHCR because it employs Syrian refugees – but, as Sam says, “We’re still looking for a sustainable business model.”
Economic (un)sustainability matches Recycle Beirut with another organisation with a very different history and setting.
Nida al-Ared and the women of Arabsalim
Back in 1995, the situation in southern Lebanon was very hard: Israeli troops were waging a ‘low intensity war’ in the area (1985-2000.) Everything was complicated, even collecting and disposing of garbage.
Then, a teacher in the Shiite village of Arabsalim involved other women in her community to collect plastic, glass and metal to be recycled.
At the very beginning, given the traditional environment which confined women inside their homes, no one was interested in supporting them.
However, Zeinab Muqalled, now in her eighties, obtained the support of the local governor. It took her three years.
The organisation was also able to gain the support of UNDP and, in 2008, about 29,000 dollars of aid from Italy to buy some machinery.
Nida al-Ared (Call from the Earth), born 20 years ago, involves 13 women from Arabsalim, all of them volunteers, spanning through several generations.
Its workers collect recyclables for free every month, door to door (about 70-75 per cent of the local population turns to the organisation), and brings them to a warehouse to sort the materials.
Recyclables are then sold to recycling factories that, once again, pay very little money. Hiba Farhat, one of the youngest women involved in the project, explains that they receive 150 dollar for every ton of plastic, but the cost of collecting, separating and delivering it is about twice that amount.
The institutional problem v. the cultural problem
When Beirut streets filled with garbage were put on the front page of international newspapers, Arabasalim experience became a model to be reproduced.
Hiba says they’d love to transmit their experience to other villages, but replicating it is hard: “We can’t replace the government,” says in a sigh.
This is the crux of the garbage and environmental awareness matter in Lebanon. A dysfunctional government and widespread red tape – every Lebanese I talked with pointed at those issues – are the main problems.
However, Hiba uncovers the psychology of the people’s apathy. On the one hand, the Lebanese have more pressing concerns, like the continuous conflicts – “As soon as one war ends, another begins”, says Hiba – public services are non existent and institutions weak.
On the other hand, the Lebanese have no faith that the circumstances will change. Hence, they see no reason to embark in the superhuman effort to make up for the shortcoming of the state. The citizenry simply adjusts to the situation, to a mindset made of defeatism and lack of accountability.
I asked Sam to tell me his version, too. “The first problem is politics,” he confirms. “But the underlying issue is the people. Some are not educated enough to understand the impact of pollution and of their own garbage on the environment. Others simply prefer to think about something else: their cars, their fancy clothes, their lifestyle. It’s a very Lebanese attitude, they care about appearance rather than essence”, he says with a slight hue of scorn.
Recycle Beirut employs Syrian refugees – who, in theory, are not allowed to work in Lebanon, though no employer seem to care. “The Lebanese don’t want to do a dirty job like this,” says Sam.
“They think even just talking about garbage is demeaning . They rather think everything’s perfect in their lives and they close their eyes in front of the problems,” continues with bitterness.
The protests in Beirut – I was confirmed by different people – were gone as quickly as they erupted.
Crystal clear: the problem is not only institutional, but also cultural.
Nida al-Ared’s women participate to workshops in Lebanon and abroad to talk about their own experience. Occasionally, they also host schools.
Recycle Beirut, too, would like to do more to raise awareness: “We are looking for funds to support our project and start awareness raising initiatives, like talking to students in the schools”, says Sam.
Despite the importance of these initiatives, Lebanon’s problem with garbage and environmental awareness is so serious that only the government could effectively deal with it.
However, the contractor in charge of garbage collection, Sukleen, seems unable or unwilling to do the job.
Officials, businessmen and mafias make money out of waste without disposing of it correctly. They just make profits out of contracts obtained through clientelism and kickbacks: an age old tune called wasta system, widespread in the Middle East and well established on the northern shores of the Mediterranean, too.
Henceforth, environmentalist initiatives sprout up almost exclusively from local projects and the private sector. Eco-friendly options represent a luxury available only to well-off people, while most of the Lebanese struggle daily to meet the needs that public services and infrastructures are unable to deliver, including economic opportunities.