Philip Issa| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: South of the Shatila roundabout, there are a few dozen scrapyards where men work patiently to sort through metals and plastics. This is how Lebanon’s bulk recycling is done, with hammers, engines and tractors. Many who work these jobs are from Syria, and they are compensated better than most of their countrymen. They work eight hours a day. It is, among all the grime and sounds and sweat and labor, a living.

“We take things apart, we lift them, and we set them down,” is how Ahmad Obeid described his work, taking his lunch in a shaded, metal yard. A mound of scrapped iron reached his feet, made of parts from old appliances, and denuded engine blocks.

Obeid is 32, from annihilated Deraa, Syria, and separated by the war from his wife and two children. He earns $200 per week, while the average income for a Syrian refugee in Beirut is $547 per month, according to a 2013 study by the Beirut Research & Innovation Center.

Obeid’s co-worker earns half as much, probably on account of his youth. He is, at 17, strong and escaping boyhood. He also came from Deraa, and he lives in a trailer in the yard with his uncle.

It is stacked on top of two other trailers, and a mountain of unpicked refuse – waiting to be sorted – reaches his window.

“I work from 8 to 4:30 every day, then I go up and shower. And that’s it,” the teenager, who asked to remain anonymous, said about his time. The men at these yards work the same hours, with a half hour for lunch.

Everything about this industry is practical, from the principle of recycling resources, to the laconic interactions of commerce.

At the yard next door, a plumber arrived on his scooter with the pipes and parts he had pulled out during his week’s projects. He didn’t come for a particular vendor; he just came because he knew of the scrapyard, and he stopped at the first open yard that would take his materials.

A laborer hammered at the faucet parts to separate the plastic and stainless steel handles from the brass interiors. Then, he weighed the components by material, and gave the plumber cash for the kilograms.

Few words were spoken; the plumber didn’t know the laborer’s name, and neither would offer theirs to The Daily Star.

Other handcarts, scooters and trucks passed by. Some people try to make a living just off of collection, rounding the city every day and picking up discarded materials from garages, factories, construction sites and dumpsters.

Others, like the plumber, bring the byproducts of their labors straight to the yards and cut out the middleman.

Prices are set on the international markets, Mohammad Hussein al- Shaer said. Shaer manages a yard opened by his father in the 1960s.

An enormous pile of scrapped iron, which currently fetches around $200 per ton, stretched three stories into the sky, containing everything from construction rebar to gates to pipes to car parts. When prices rise, Shaer said, he’d send the scrap to Beirut’s port and sell it abroad.

“Most of the iron goes to Turkey. There they process it, and from there, it can go anywhere. Israel, Greece – God knows where,” he said.

Scrapped aluminum sells for $1,000 per ton. “If you drink a can of Pepsi in Zahle, in two or three days, it will arrive here,” Shaer said, pointing to a mound of soda cans and window frames.

But the real loot is in copper, which commands around $4,000 per ton, and can be found in wires often encased in rubber.

“We extract the copper by burning the rubber, but far from cities, not among people, because it’s very dangerous to health,” Shaer said.

The larger yards have heavy equipment, like excavators, bulldozers, compactors and shredders, and they have scales that can weigh arriving trucks, up to 60 tons.

Still, all these operations rely on manpower, and the feet of workers beat the grimy earth as they direct hauls and disaggregate the mixed materials. Red-orange and blue-green lubricants seeped out of discarded engines and transmissions.

Scrapping is just one part of the reuse cycle. After metals have been extracted, they must be melted and purified, at plants that work most efficiently at large scales.

Ziad Abichaker, the president of the recycling enterprise Cedar Environmental, said he knew of just one iron melting plant in Lebanon, and none for aluminum.

“All metals are exported,” he said, except for some lead, which a plant in the Bekaa Valley harvests from spent car and UPS batteries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 11, 2015, on page 4.