Will Beirut finally have cost effective and sustainable solid waste management?

The Naameh landfill, three months after the government’s promised deadline for its closure, is still receiving trash from Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Amid disagreement between various ministers, the government ended up extending the landfill for a three-month period (renewable for another three months). The contracts of two solid waste management companies that cover Beirut and Mount Lebanon were also extended for the same period. These extensions were justified by the need for additional time to develop a solid waste management plan for Lebanon.

Since the 1990s, Beirut and Mount Lebanon were managed as one service area by a company, Sukleen. The government’s proposed plan splits this area into three, such that each area will now be managed by a different solid waste management company. The companies will be in charge of collecting, treating and disposing the waste. The Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) has issued tenders for these three areas, as well as others throughout Lebanon.

Bidders will be able to choose their waste treatment option from a preapproved list which includes sanitary landfills, sorting or composting facilities or waste incineration or waste-to-energy plants. The contracts will be for 7 years, renewable for 3 additional ones. For bidders that opt for sanitary landfills, they are not allowed to landfill more than 40 percent of waste they collect during the first three years. Between the third and seventh year, it will only be permissible to landfill 25 percent. This requirement is essential to avoid a repeat of the Naameh landfill debacle.

According to older press reports, Sukleen had a cap of 45% of the total quantity of waste to be landfilled. If all the companies choose the landfill option, solid waste management is not expected to be much different from the current situation. The Naameh landfill became problematic because there was no control and supervision over it. The contract kept getting extended until the residents of the area complained. It is possible that the government would not have tackled the issue if it hadn’t been for the public protests. With no proper oversight mechanism, landfills do not seem to be the best way to manage solid waste.

One of the main problems of the old system was that Beirut and Mount Lebanon are too large and populated a service area for one company to handle. There are 306 municipalities in Mount Lebanon; a small town in Mount Lebanon, Naameh, became the destination for solid waste from all these municipalities as well as the capital Beirut. Under Lebanese law, the municipalities are in charge of solid waste management. All the municipalities of Mount Lebanon have practically outsourced this responsibility to the same company  under one contract managed by CDR. Most of the municipalities do not have the funds to manage their waste; however, making each municipality more involved in solid waste management could provide a more sustainable solution than completely outsourcing in bulk.

Ghazze, a small town in the Western Bekaa, have built a small recycling facility to deal with their solid waste problem. Ghazze has approximately a population of 5,000; however, over the past few years, thousands of Syrian refugees have settled there creating a serious solid waste problem. With funds from an international organization, a small recycling facility has been built to deal with this increase. Before this facility existed, all waste was thrown in an open dump. The facility employs municipal workers and refugees who are paid by the international organization to help both the refugees and the host communities. This project is still in the beginning and it is too early to judge its impact, however, this is an example of how, with some external support, a small municipality could implement a decentralized solid waste management plan.

Of course, the biggest constraint for municipalities is always financial. This brings up another issue, the high cost of collecting and disposing of waste in Beirut. The cost of handling solid waste in Beirut is very high. According to SweepNet, the government is paying around USD$ 130 per ton for collecting and disposing waste in Beirut. In Zahle and Tripoli, the cost is US$ 40-45 and in some rural areas it is as low as US$ 20-20. Beirut also has a much higher cost than other Arab cities; in Amman it costs a little less than US$ 40, about $US 20 in Algiers and $US 20 in Egypt. The source of funding comes from the Independent Municipal Fund, a fund the state distributes to municipalities. In 2009, about 40% of this fund was spent on the contract with the  company in charge of Beirut and Mount Lebanon.

This is an opportunity for the government not to repeat some of the previous mistakes in solid waste management. The government needs to implement a monitoring and evaluation plan to ensure all treatment facilities are running smoothly and to minimize adverse impacts on surrounding communities and environment. A thorough review of the bidders’ costs needs to be undertaken in an effective and transparent manner. All options that reduce the overall cost should be explored to free up funds for other important reforms and projects that municipalities can undertake.

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