Syria needs to tackle its growing trash problem.

By Muhammad Atef Fares

Al-Ghozlanieh plant and landfill outside Damascus processes 250 tonnes of waste daily. It is the only place in the country where compostable waste is treated.

In recent years, waste management has become an acute problem in Syria. The country’s rapid population growth – increasing from 18m in 2004 to 23m in 2010, along with a severe three-year drought – has strained resources and infrastructure. The waste-management sector is no exception, even though improving it would yield major economic benefits.

The system
Studies conducted by the Ministry of Local Administration, which is responsible for Syria’s waste-management system, hint at the sector’s overall disfunction. According to the ministry’s 2005 Master Plan of Solid Waste Management in Syria (the most recent report available and the current reference point for authorities), the country needs 44 sanitary landfills to accommodate its waste but only has 11 that are operational. Another seven have been constructed, but lack the investment required to open, while 18 others are in various stages of construction. Of the 33 sorting facilities needed around the country, none are operational. The gap between what is needed and what is actually operating is enormous – the country needs more composting facilities, biomedical and hazardous waste treatment facilities and transfer stations.

The Ministry of Local Administration manages the solid-waste sector through three administrative units: the governorates, cities and municipalities. Each municipality collects and transports all forms of waste to transfer stations that take it to a final disposal site. More often than not, the final disposal site is one of the 1,000 random, unsanitary dump sites around the country.

At the centre of Syria’s waste-management problem is a lack of relevant regulations. Those that do exist are either insufficient or not enforced. For instance, one article in Syrian law contains eight provisions that prohibit the discarding of waste out of windows and the depositing of rubbish on city streets and sidewalks, yet none refer to requirements of separating biomedical waste from non- hazardous rubbish, for example.

Wasting waste
The shortage of regulations combined with insufficient investment in infrastructure explains the pervasiveness of Syria’s informal and hazardous processing techniques and dump sites.

Damascus is the only city in the country in which compostable waste is treated – and there is only one plant doing the work. The plant processes an estimated 250 tonnes of compostable material everyday. Of this, 40 percent comes out as fertiliser and a cubic metre of this output – about 700kg – is sold for SYP 240 (USD 5.21) daily.

According to Maurice Haddad, plant manager, only 250 tonnes of the 1,200 tonnes of waste produced daily in Damascus are actually processed. The remaining 950 tonnes end up in landfills containing a toxic mix of biomedical, household, recyclable, industrial and compostable waste. Annually, 5,500 tonnes of Syria’s biomedical waste finds its way to ordinary dumps.

Garbage economy
In 2009, a contractor started investing in the composting plant’s landfill, paying the Damascus governorate SYP 70.3m (USD 1.5m) a year for the right to extract recyclables from it.

More than 150 scavengers also live with their families at the plant. Each pays the same contractor SYP 5,000 (USD 108.69) a month for digging rights. They rummage through the rubbish looking for materials to sell back to local factories.

Another contractor pays the government SYP 500,000 (USD 10,869) a year to collect about 2 tonnes of plastic bags a day. The contractor then sells the bags to manufacturers who convert them into new goods – including plastic containers, accessories such as buttons and irrigation tubes.

But the ‘garbage economy’ of Damascus’s waste-management system has an even larger informal component. An estimated 4,000 scavengers illegally remove about 18 percent of the 1,200 tonnes of waste produced in Damascus every day, according to the Ministry of Local Administration. They too sell their finds to local industries.

Management obstacles
According to Haddad, infrastructure is the major hurdle to effective waste management in Syria. To that end, the Ministry of Local Administration prepared a five-year-plan in 2010 to evaluate the country’s needs. In total, SYP 22bn (USD 478.2m) has been set aside for nationwide investment in waste-management modernisation. The figure is based on the 2005 Master Plan that estimated that 80 percent of Syria’s waste can be processed.

Thus far, however, there has been little in the way of progress.

“We have been asking to modernise, bring in more machines and equipment, build more transport terminals and more mechanical and biological processing plants. We don’t know why there is no support for this from the concerned agencies,” Haddad explained.

While the benefits to tackling the country’s waste-management crisis are manifold, Haddad believes the environment is the greatest beneficiary.

“Getting rid of trash with particular care for the environment and decreasing reliance on landfills, are the largest ‘profits’,” he said.

Sweeping Up

Homs is partnering with Dutch experts to improve its waste management.

By Nadia Muhanna

The Homs Chamber of Industry is establishing, together with PUM (Netherlands Senior Experts) and other international companies, an Expertise House. It is a body of experts tasked with providing support and consultation to small and mid-size businesses in Syria, complete with a free hotline.

“The new Syrian government is now focusing on small and medium-sized enterprises which are in immense need for the know-how that Western experts can offer,” Tarek al-Ahmed, board member of the Homs Chamber of Industry, said.

This collaboration with PUM is the result of a March visit by Ahmed and a Syrian delegation to the Netherlands to study the Dutch experience in sustainable waste management and look into future cooperation possibilities. Another conference is planned for later this year. During the visit, the delegation met with stakeholders in the Dutch public and private waste-management sector.

The Homs Chamber of Industry established a holding company (whose name is yet to be revealed) specialised in environmental issues that will collaborate with several waste management companies, Ahmed said. These include ATM (Waste Terminal Moerdijk), a Dutch company specialised in the processing of industrial and hazardous waste. The holding company is planning to buy machines that process, manage and convert waste into energy.

The Syrian delegation sought Dutch assistance because of the latter’s experience working in the field.

“The Netherlands is very developed in waste management especially,” Hasan Darwish, project manager for waste management-related projects in Homs governorate, who accompanied the delegation, said. “Syria has now started to address the issue of waste management very seriously and wants to base its waste management strategy on international and scientific methods that have already been tested.”