Since September 2016, on the streets of the Lebanese capital, mountains of white bags have once again piling up, waiting to be taken to the rubbish dump.
The temporary waste storage site in Bourj Hammoud has been closed for around three weeks, adding to the health and environmental hazards weighing over the people of Beirut.
In the meantime, taxi drivers perfume their cabs when driving past areas filled with refuse bags, to disguise the stench.
In July 2015, a waste disposal crisis began to add to the gloomy atmosphere on the streets of Lebanon. The country’s biggest dumping ground, in Naameh, south of the capital, temporarily opened at the beginning of the 1990s, had been closed. The demonstrations organised at the time by the ’You Stink’ movement, joined by tens of thousands of people, drew wide media attention.
In March 2016, the government finally announced a plan, and the clearance of the bins was set in motion after nine months of cohabitation with waste and rats. The government explained that it was reopening the Naameh landfill and creating two new sites: one in Bourj Hammoud and the other in ’Costa Brava’, to the south of the capital, near the airport.
The plan also set out waste management measures. Months later, the situation remains unclear and uncontrolled waste incineration is becoming an ever-growing health threat for the Lebanese.
Responding to this disarray, a number of citizens decided to take on the task of recycling, without waiting for help from the state.
In Antelias, to the north of Beirut, Varant Kurkjian is collecting recyclable waste from dozens of families, as he does every week. In August 2015, this 28-year-old decided to roll up his sleeves, with the help of his brother and two other volunteers, and set up Ganatch, an association that collects waste from households in Lebanon.
“Initially, we managed to convince 20 households. Now we are collecting 400 kilos of waste from over 120 families every week. We recently started a round in the Gemmayzeh/Mar Mikhaël area of Beirut, where there’s a real demand for it. But we need more volunteers.”
Varant goes up and down the stairs with a spring in his step, carrying bags filled with paper, cardboard and plastic, etc. Seeing him with his blue gloves and his “Ganatch” (“green” in Armenian) t-shirt, it is hard to imagine he works at the World Bank by day.
Once the bags have been collected, a van, either from an association called L’Écoute (which employs people with disabilities) or from the social enterprise Recycle Beirut, comes to pick them up.
“We are really hoping to inspire other people to do the same. But in Lebanon, it’s not part of the mindset. People think about leaving the country rather than seeing the chaos here as an opportunity to make a difference,” laments Varant.
The Ganatch volunteers hope to find sponsors soon, to help them to buy their own van rather than using their own personal vehicles, but they categorically refuse to have any links with a political party, for fear of being manipulated for political ends.
Their hope, in the long term, is to turn Ganatch into a fully-fledged social enterprise that could serve as a model for other ecological initiatives that have been emerging since the onset of the waste disposal crisis.
“In the beginning, when people would see us carrying rubbish, they felt sorry for us. It’s often difficult to recruit volunteers because they wonder what people will say about them,” Varant acknowledges.
Convincing people to recycling was difficult at first, but the families that were won over by the idea have now developed good habits. “It has to be said though, they’re not quite ready for composting yet!” concedes Varant, laughing.
Ganatch is about to make a start on initiatives with schools, to teach young people to recycle refuse, for want of being able to recycle the country’s dysfunctional political class.