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Are incinerators answer to Lebanon's waste crisis?

The plan to build incinerators in Lebanon raised the concerns of nongovernmental organizations and activists who put forward suggestions to solve the country's never-ending waste crisis.

Politicians and civil society groups are continuing to raise concerns and protest plans to build incinerators in Lebanon in the government’s effort to tackle the continued waste crisis.

The Lebanese government is moving forward with plans to build incinerators across the country in an attempt to combat the 2 million tons of solid waste produced each year. According to the Green MED Initiative, around 80% of this waste is then dumped into landfills that span acres.

The waste crisis in Lebanon reached its peak in 2015, and, in response, the Beirut municipality put forward plans to build an incinerator. This plan, which also includes building incinerators in Zahle and Tripoli, was ratified in parliament in September 2018.

However, the Waste Management Coalition (WMC), a group of 15 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working to create a more sustainable Lebanon, started the Toxic Flag campaign to warn the public about the health risks involved with incinerators, which saw billboards throughout Beirut telling those looking at it, “If you are reading this, you are in the danger zone.”

Samar Khalil, a member of the WMC, told Al-Monitor, “We distributed these billboards all over Beirut to let the people know that they are in the danger zone. A simulation conducted by a professor from the American University of Beirut showed that if they [the authorities] place one of the incinerators in the Karantina area [of Beirut], air pollutants will reach areas like Achrafieh and Bourj Hamoud [also in Beirut], while around 10% of emissions will reach Aley and Baabda.”

Baabda, where the presidential palace is located, lies around 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from Beirut and Aley is 20 kilometers (20 miles) from the capital.

Khalil explained that the WMC opposes the use of incinerators due to the composition of waste in Lebanon, which would also cause a loss in resources and jobs. Meanwhile, the country would be unable to monitor the pollution that is created by such incinerators.

She said, “You need a certain calorific value for the waste to be able to sustain combustion. In Lebanon around 53% of our waste is organic with a level of humidity reaching 60%, so it has a very low calorific value. To burn this waste it has to be dried and then burned with plastics and cardboards, which have high calorific values. This process also means losing these resources [plastics and cardboards], which can be recovered and recycled and thus create job opportunities."

She added, “We also know that incinerators are used everywhere in the world. However they are under strict monitoring and strict enforcement of laws — which [so far] we don’t have. We also don’t have a laboratory that can test pollutants that are carcinogenic.”

Independent member of parliament Paula Yacoubian did not comment when asked by Al-Monitor about the subject, But she has previously expressed her concerns over the health risks posed by the use of incinerators.

During a press conference last year, Yacoubian said, “They are insisting that European countries are using these in their capitals. … While it is true, these countries are trying to close down their incinerators … and are competing on who is greener. We are responsible for our health, not the Europeans.”

Al-Monitor obtained the audit conducted by the French engineering company EGIS of the proposed plan. The audit recommended that the government “allow a total of 1.5 to 2 years to arrive at the launch of the design-build construction tender.”

EGIS also said that an environmental and social impact study for the chosen sites must be carried out, while also stressing the need to “conduct a preliminary study of a master plan for waste management. Another study is also necessary to identify the deposits to be taken into account, their characteristics and their evolutions.”

In addition, the audit explained ways to handle the different types of ashes that would be produced by the incinerators, which is another concern raised by the WMC.

“So you have two types of ashes,” Khalil explained. “The bottom ash, which is in the furnace, and the fly ash, which is captured by the filters.”

She added, “The fly ash is very toxic because it contains all heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; they have hazardous waste landfills or even old salt mines worldwide. We don’t have these facilities in Lebanon. We don’t have any hazardous waste management system. Our hazardous waste is mixed with our municipal waste and this will also affect the quality of the bottom and fly ashes.”

According to an economic simulation done by the WMC, to make up for the $1.125 billion needed to install the three proposed incinerators, the government would have to charge around $160 per ton of waste, which would be a significant increase from the current $120 per ton.

Rather than using incinerators, Khalil recommended, “We should try to minimize waste, start with sorting at the source, increasing recycling rates, biologically treating the organic waste and whatever is left — which will constitute around 20% of the remaining waste — can be, at the moment, landfilled until we find other solutions.”

Yacoubian argued at last year’s press conference that people could help by sorting waste in their homes.

Georges Bitar, one of the founders of Live Love Recycle, an NGO that picks up bags of recyclables from homes in Beirut, told Al-Monitor, “When we founded the organization, we wanted the service to be free in order to give people tips and to teach them how to recycle.”

Bitar explained that people need to find ways to reduce their waste, such as using reusable cups instead of plastic bottles. He added that while he believes recycling “is part of the solution, it is not the [ultimate] solution.”

According to Lebanese law, a decentralized system is in place, where municipalities are responsible for waste disposal rather than the government being in charge of its pickup and removal. But the language used in the law refers more to centralization and does not define what decentralized units are. This has caused overlapping in the government’s and municipalities’ duties when it comes to solid waste management.

Khalil explained that in order to have a more efficient and lasting solution for the waste crisis, there needs to be “technical expertise.” She noted, “[The Ministry of Interior] needs to release the funds [allocated] to the municipalities so that they can afford the collection [of waste], recovery of resources and establishment of sorting facilities.”

She added, “You need this and at the same time you need some strategic guidance from the Ministry of Environment because none of them can see what’s happening now."

Minister of Environment Fady Jreissati did not comment when contacted by Al-Monitor. But during a March 11 meeting of the parliamentary Public Works, Transportation, Energy and Water Committee, Jreissati called for more waste sorting as a short-term solution.

“The number of landfills must be minimal,” Jreissati said. "We should also not forget [waste] materials from hospitals. … We are working to find a solution to this [problem].”

The exact time frame and cost to build the incinerator remain unknown.

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