Lebanon’s Waste: Another Man’s Treasure

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The first prefab house made from recycled plastic bags. (Photo: Cedar Environmental)

By: Rebecca Whiting

Published Monday, July 9, 2012

Landfills in Lebanon are close to overflowing and as the government’s plans for incinerators are met with protests from municipalities and environmentalists, a new solution to the growing problem is vital.

Beirut - Those passing Ain al-Mreisseh on Saturday, July 7, might have been surprised to notice a small house parked by the side of the road. Those who approached for further inspection will have marked upon the unusual multicolored and sometimes glittering marbled texture of the structure, aspects lent to it through its being built entirely of waste plastic, largely plastic bags and candy wrappers.

The house is made of Eco-Board, a material made from 100 percent reclaimed plastic bags and plastic packaging. Designed by the Lebanese environmental and industrial engineering organization Cedar Environmental, Eco-Board is a “technologically feasible and financially affordable way of recycling plastic bags and all kinds of scrap plastic that main recycling industries don’t recycle,” says the organization’s founder Ziad Abichaker.

Eco-Board can be cut to any shape with a computer-guided laser and being both strong and waterproof it can replace wood and steel boards in most technical and industrial construction. Cedar Environmental sees endless possibilities for its use, from pre-fab houses, mountain cabins, and furniture, to bus-stops, and news-stands. Technology that turns plastic waste into a usable material has apparently been devised by only a very few companies worldwide, and so this innovative product has drawn considerable attention. It even featured in this year’s Beirut Art Exhibition.

With waste management in Lebanon being a seething disaster, a process that offers to turn the burgeoning mountains of trash into usable commodities sounds almost to good to be true. At present, with little infrastructure and no legislation concerning the sector, the mounting problem of waste disposal is close to encroaching on everyone’s doorstep.

In Lebanon, waste disposal is the responsibility of individual municipalities, but lack of funds obstructs most regions from exploring sustainable methods. The government signed contracts in the early nineties with cleaning contractors, most significantly Sukleen, owned by the Aveda group, which are still upheld. These contracts disallow any competitors with more advanced and efficient technology regarding waste disposal to enter the sector.

According to the World Environment Magazine, 40 percent of municipalities dispose of the waste on public properties, 39 percent use private land, 9 percent have sorting and recycling units but due to management constrains only a few of them are actually working , and 21 percent do not know or do not want to provide information about their dump sites.

“The National Plan for waste management is not up to date with modern technology. They rely heavily on landfills. Then they came up with a plan that is even worse than landfilling, which is incinerating, burning the waste,” said Abichaker.

Recently, Minister of the Environment Nazem al-Khoury was heavily criticized for a plan to open an incinerator in Chekka, North Lebanon, by environmental organizations and the local community as the waste incinerators are not only exceedingly costly, but emit carcinogenic dioxins and toxic ash.

Plenty of Garbage, Zero Waste

Cedar Environmental is instead suggesting a zero-waste approach to processing waste. The organization builds Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs), waste treatment plants that employ environmentally friendly methods for recovering as much as possible of the materials thrown away by populations in communities.

The garbage is sorted in the MRFs, then the organic waste is turned into either compost or fertilizers, and the recyclables are processed for re-use. Abichaker believes that by next year they will have developed the technology to be producing zero waste from the garbage processed in their facilities.

Considering the organization’s impressive offer of a viable, sustainable, and environmentally responsible solution to waste-management, it is worrying that only 11 municipalities have opted for an MRF.

Abichaker explains the current situation, “When the central government collects tax from the public, part of that tax money is supposed to be given back municipalities for providing services. But instead of giving the money to the municipalities so that they can solve the waste problem themselves, central government decided to pay Sukleen directly and deduct it from the municipalities’ funds, without having the approval of the municipalities. What is happening now is illegal. They are bypassing the municipalities.”

Essentially, a monopoly over waste-management has been created. Sukleen holds the contract for the waste management of all Greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon. “Their system is full of inefficiencies,” says Abichaker, “but no competitors with better solutions can even talk to the government.”

“The biggest flaw in the government’s plan is that they want to centralize waste management. We are saying, ‘De-centralize it - it will become much easier to handle, more jobs will be created, and most importantly, huge amounts will be saved on transportation.’”

Already Cedar Environmental’s products are making an impact in Lebanon. The fertilizer and compost they produce from collected waste is certified as organic and is sold to local farmers for around half of what they pay to import it.

“We are approaching farmers and suggesting financially viable and sustainable methods for them to switch to organic farming,” said Abichaker. “We believe that it is possible to eventually make organic produce available to everyone for affordable prices.”

The organization is an example of successful self-sufficiency. Sales from their organic fertilizer completely funded their research for Eco-Board.

Recycling for the Lazy

The technology and processes applied by Cedar Environmental’s processing plants were designed so as to require minimal behavior changes from the public concerning recycling. “At university in America we were taught that the ethos behind any waste management system must not rely on the good will of people, or the presumption that people will change,” says Abickaker.

“We have developed a sorting system where it is really really easy for people. They just have to put all their organics, like food waste, in one bin and everything else in another.”

As landfill space is already being used to overcapacity, the crisis point is on the horizon. Abichaker predicts that it will come in the next two years, “Then people’s garbage will start to become a personal problem. Both financially and health-wise. It already affects those who live near landfills. No one will allow for a landfill or incinerator to be built in their region. Other alternatives will have to be explored.”

In 2014, the Sukleen contracts will expire, “Hopefully they won’t be renewed,” said Abichaker.

With technology that demands very little effort from the public, what is lacking the most is, of course, infrastructure. Abichaker is confident that once the Sukleen contracts end, the private sector and personal initiatives will provide the needed services for offering a complete solution to waste management.

“We do not need the government’s support, in Lebanon we are used to not having it. We need to support them, not them support us.”

“Waste processing plants create usable products as well as jobs,” says Abichaker. “Waste should be looked at as a resource not as a problem.”

Comments

Great article! Its projects like this which will take our country out of the gutter. Unfortunately, our notorious politicians tend to shut down such people and opportunities because it doesn't serve their personal benefits.

Mr. Abichaker,
[email protected]
You make us proud.
Thank you for uncovering a source of wealth that is percieved by many as one of our essential problems.
We hope that you will get the opportunity to commericialize these products and that the government and municipalities will join forces to take advantage of such inovations.
How about using these boards in construction sites?
Again congratulations.

I salute this person's work!!!! One of the VERY few stories/articles we read in Lebanon that give us hope. Far from politics, far from internal, regional, and international power struggles, this is a great example on how we can REALLY build a country.

N.B. Please make sure your Eco-boards can also recycle and include tires. Apparently we have a lot of those and incineration seems to be the only solution so far!

BRAVO Mr. Abichaker and keep up the great work!!!

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