A call to the Earth: Residents in Lebanon leading recycling efforts
The determination of a group of women that if the government doesn’t do it, you do it has seen a Lebanese village’s multi-stream recycling collection grow and expand to include composting. Josie Benge reports
Still hurting from the wounds of a 16-year civil war, Lebanon has spent the best part of this century struggling to modernise its infrastructure. Power cuts and water shortages are commonplace, and the ongoing lack of political consensus has meant that the state has failed to implement an effective national waste management strategy, often relying instead on emergency and temporary measures.
The situation came to international attention in 2015 when Beirut’s main landfill site, Naameh, closed due to overcapacity, and the company that had been collecting the waste simply stopped doing so. People ended up throwing out their rubbish wherever they could. Waste piled up around the city for nine months, and citizens took to the streets to protest the mess, the smell, and the failings of a corrupt and inefficient state. Protestors, led by a group called You Stink, petitioned the government for a resolution to the problem, but so far there have been only temporary fixes.
It was, therefore, up to courageous and able individuals forming small organisations and charging a modest fee, to take it upon themselves to clear up the mess. Among these organisations is Recycle Lebanon, which organises campaigns and community clean- ups, and Recycle Beirut, a social enterprise that runs a recycling collection. Another such organisation, Nidaa Al Ard, found 40 miles south of the capital, in a small village called Arabsalim, had taken matters into its own hands a long time ago, before the recent political upheavals. Zeinab Moukhalled, now 81, came to the realisation back in 1995 that if the government isn’t doing something, local initiatives can provide the answer.
At that time, Arabsalim was on the frontline of the Israeli army’s occupation zone in southern Lebanon. As the village was subjected to increasingly frequent artillery fire, garbage collections ground to a halt. There was no functioning municipality, so Moukhalled approached a regional governor to ask for help cleaning up the village, but was refused. “I knew that day that I had to take it upon myself,” she says.
Undeterred, Moukhalled turned her back garden into a storage area for recyclable waste, and invited a group of women round to share their ideas. The women soon began sorting waste themselves, and decided to start collecting it from the rest of the village. They divided the village into sectors with the women taking responsibility for one each.
Initially, they recycled only glass, paper and plastic. Moukhalled’s friend, Khadija Farhat, bought a lorry, and the volunteers paid for the collections themselves, with each of the 46 members putting in about £35 per year. As they carried out the collections, they visited the village’s housewives, door-to-door campaigning if you will, to explain the process of waste sorting and encouraged them to commit to this brand new approach.
In 1998, the women formalised their efforts by establishing an NGO, and Nidaa Al Ard (‘Call of the Earth’) was born. During the course of the first few years, the organisation received some £15,000 in financial aid from the United Nations Development Programme. Meanwhile, the Italian Embassy built a sorting station for the town and the German Embassy provided an electricity generator for the station. The local municipality offered a modest amount of support, including the land on which the sorting facility was built.
The organisation thrived and the facility is a hive of activity where the organisation frequently receives visitors – schoolchildren, students and activists – who come to learn about the project. When asked by the BBC recently what she was most proud of, Moukhalled replied: “Planting the idea in people’s minds that caring for the earth is our responsibility in this part of the world. Whether we do it or not, our politicians won’t care. It’s down to us. If everyone does what we did in Arabsalim, there’d be no rubbish problem anywhere in Lebanon.”
According to the NGO, close to 70 per cent of Arabsalim’s population now sorts and recycles, separating their rubbish between plastics, metals, glass and organic materials. Nidaa Al Ard collects the waste from sorting bins distributed to each household by the organisation, and transports it to the sorting station, where it is further sorted and processed. After that, the waste is sent to nearby recycling facilities, which happens approximately twice a month. The sale of recyclables covers only a small percentage of costs, with treatment plants paying between £35 and £150 per tonne, depending on the material.
Reaching this point hasn’t been easy, and the project’s success has relied on constant interaction between Nidaa Al Ard and the people of Arabsalim, some of whom were initially less than enthused about sorting waste. This has been made even more difficult by the ongoing security threat from Israel, as the organisation has been forced to build itself up again several times after residents have migrated during security crises.
“We have to continuously campaign and remind people of the importance of what they are doing,” said founding Nidaa Al Ard member Dareen Farhat to the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies. “When families are worried about their survival, sorting out waste becomes the least of their concerns.”
More recently, Arabsalim has faced a huge population increase due to an influx of refugees from the Syrian conflict, making it even more difficult for Nidaa Al Ard to campaign, and meaning that there is now an insufficient number of collectors to service the larger number of residents.
Despite these enormous difficulties, Nidaa Al Ard continues to expand, and has started developing further projects beyond recycling solid waste. In 2011, a project for a solar power system was announced which aimed to save electricity and reduce pollution throughout the village. The scheme has been hailed as a success: 500 units have been installed, most of them subsidised by the local municipality. Solar energy is used mainly to heat water, and is considerably cheaper for residents than the former electrical supply.
Another project that has recently been introduced is a composting scheme. Nidaa Al Ard has provided 100 houses with containers, soil and other materials. The villagers of Arabsalim will be trained through awareness campaigns, and assisted during the composting process by an experienced engineer. The organisation will then be responsible for collecting it and selling it on to local farmers as natural pesticide, at a low price.
And while the organisation must be admired for coordinating such successful and ambitious operations, its members make it clear that the campaigning element of the project – awareness raising, education and influencing behaviour – still remains at the heart of what they do.