In the Lebanese capital, residents are taking public health into their own hands
Truck drivers in Djibouti regularly toss empty Coke bottles from windows. School kids unwrap candy and let the wrapper waft to the street without even thinking about it. Plastic bags float like leg-less jellyfish through the air on blustery days and snag on thorny acacia trees.
There is a garbage pick-up service. The orange truck drives through neighborhoods with its cheerful ice-cream truck jingle calling out the guards to bring bags and bins to dump in the back. There are also street cleaners, usually women, wearing bright orange cloaks over their dresses and headscarves over their faces to keep the dust out of their eyes and mouths as they sweep up dust and garbage.
Still there are mounds everywhere, some streets are almost entirely covered with flattened plastic water bottles. Parts of the ocean are nearly plugged up with trash, even protected areas like where sea turtles flock. I thought Djibouti had a trash problem. Then I saw photos coming out of Beirut, Lebanon. Trash problems, it turns out, are relative.
Beginning in 2015, Beirut underwent an apocalyptic trash crisis. Mountains of white garbage bags, as tall as ski slopes, appeared in the city. Literal rivers of trash, on the move from their own weight and momentum, slowly oozed down roads and clogged waterways. Some streets were too full to drive on. Some sidewalks became impassable. The stench was overpowering.
Some people said rain washed toxins from the trash into the water supply. The piles became breeding grounds for rats and disease. Though little attempt was made to clear the trash, the government did sprinkle white powder on it, hoping that would discourage the rats and the disease. The mounds were also dangerous fire hazards. A construction site-cum-garbage dump in the Dbayeh area north of Beirut spontaneously combusted in September 2016.
In picture after picture and article after article, I saw residents of Beirut walk past the piles with their hands over their faces or drive by without glancing at the trash. Had they accepted it? Were they resigned to live in this rubbish hell? What caused this crisis?
Lebanon’s main landfill was located in a city outside Beirut and in July 2015, the town’s residents blockaded the road, refusing to take any more trash. The landfill contained 15 million tons of trash, 13 million more than it was built for and they didn’t want any more. So the government stopped bringing garbage. They also stopped picking up garbage since there was no backup plan, no other landfill. Essentially, Beirut’s streets became the landfill.
There were a few peaceful protests but the country had had no elected leader since 2014 and no one else in government was willing to take on the trash problem. Eventually a deal was struck for a temporary location and the streets were cleaned. Once the trash disappeared, the protests faded away. Unless a crisis is directly in front of you, most people will ignore it.
“Unfortunately, nothing really happens in Lebanon unless there is a crisis,” says L. Taddei, a resident of Beirut. “And it was a crisis when people couldn’t walk in the streets or drive, but once it was out of the streets, it didn’t feel like a crisis anymore. To some people, it still did, but they weren’t enough to make a difference anymore and support for them just petered out.”
This group of protestors, called You Stink, were non-partisan. No political or religious association. “Great in principal, but I wonder if they didn’t succeed because they didn’t have the powerful backing of a political or religious party. And, frankly, they weren’t violent. They didn’t create chaos, so they weren’t able to get anything done,” Taddei told me.
With the problem solved by the temporary landfills, people seemed to forget about it. But now the government is building a massive ocean-side dump, which could have a massive environmental impact in the region.
“The toxic leachate is damaging to the life in the Mediterranean sea as a whole,” and the sea dumping plan “will deter or kill the fish in our area, and tip the life balance and the biodiversity of the sea,” says Najat A. Saliba, a professor at the American University of Beirut and Director of the Nature Conservation Center.
One positive outcome of the trash crisis is that Beirutis are taking recycling more seriously. People who hadn’t thought about it before are now spearheading sorting and recycling initiatives. They challenge neighbors to recycle and are less likely to toss garbage out the window.
Recycle Beirut has also begun to hire Syrian refugees, offering some of them their first-ever paid work.
“The project not only benefits Lebanon by contributing to preserve the environment, it also gives dignity and a chance for the most vulnerable refugees to give back to the community that is hosting them in exile,” says Mireille Girard, the representative in Lebanon for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Some see the move toward recycling as only positive. Others see it, however good for the environment, as a recrimination of the Lebanese government. When people start doing what the government should be doing, clearly confidence in that government has waned. These people, according to writer Joseph Eid, say the Lebanese “have surrendered entirely to the idea that the ongoing garbage crisis exemplifies what is wrong with Lebanon: A political class that has no interest in serving the public.”
What will happen when the temporary landfills overflow or if the ocean-side dump is blocked because of environmental damage? No one knows. For now, people are simply glad to be able to bike through the city without plugging their noses or wearing face masks. As for actually solving the problem? They will think about that later.
Rachel Pieh Jones, a frequent contributor to EthnoTraveler, lives and writes in Djibouti.