May 21, 2012 01:30 AM
By Olivia Alabaster

BEIRUT: Several thousand volunteers took part in the 15th Operation Big Blue Association’s coastal cleanup Sunday, at beaches, cliff tops and underwater sites along Lebanon’s shore. Originally due to be launched at Tripoli’s port, Sunday’s event, held under the patronage of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, was inaugurated at Raouche on Beirut’s Corniche, and Information Minister Walid Daouk spoke on behalf of the prime minister.

Cleanup operations in Tripoli and Akkar have been postponed due to the security situation there but went ahead Sunday at some other 55 beaches, from Naqoura in southern Lebanon to Jbeil and Batroun north of Beirut.

At Raouche, Lebanese Army soldiers abseiled down the cliff face, picking up trash, while small fishing boats circled Pigeon Rocks, their passengers collecting garbage from the surface of the water.

There were also 10 dive sites, where volunteers were due to collect trash from below the surface, but because of strong currents and high waves, the dives have also been postponed.

Iffat Edriss, the president of OBBA, spoke to The Daily Star about the event and why it was held at this time of year. “This is a very important time of year for turtles and other marine life,” she said.

With a group of other divers, Edriss helped found OBBA in 1997 after they witnessed turtles becoming caught up in plastic bags and struggling to swim.

A major first for this year’s event, Edriss said, was the introduction of biodegradable bags in which to collect the trash.

“Thanks to Reverte and Sanita, this year for the first time we are using biodegradable bags instead of the nylon ones we have used in the past,” Edriss said. The bags will fully biodegrade in an average of 24 months, leaving nothing but water, carbon dioxide and biomass.

The majority of waste collected this year, Edriss added, will be sent for recycling, with the assistance of Sukleen.

Since the annual cleanups started 15 years ago, the situation on Lebanon’s beaches has been gradually improving, Edriss said.

“First, this is because we eventually managed to make an impact on the great deal of waste which had accumulated in the seas after 20 years of war. And [it is] also due to the increase in recycling plants.”

The public beach at Ramlet al-Baida is today virtually spotless, she added, since OBBA took over management of the shoreline in 2003, alongside Sukleen and the Tourism Ministry.

Volunteers at the beach in Ras Beirut were tasked with merely panning the sand for small fragments of waste, rather than having to collect larger items.

Speaking to The Daily Star, Daouk urged all Lebanese to protect their seas.

“While I’m not the environment minister, these issues are very important for everyone. Anyone can see that the sea is dirty,” he said.

“As a government we put a lot of importance on cleaning the sea,” Daouk added.

“Sure, this issue is important in terms of tourism, but it is first and foremost important for the Lebanese.”

The Operation Big Blue cleanup event was essential, he said, in acting as a message to “try to alert the Lebanese people to have a friendly use of the environment around them.”

In a media release from OBBA, the NGO states that their mission is “not solely dedicated to keeping the beach clean for one day. Our mission was to jump-start a culture of cleanliness and reveal the civilized image of Lebanon which we believe exists in the heart of each and every Lebanese citizen.”

Daouk said he was encouraged by the adoption of biodegradable bags this year and called upon all Lebanese to adopt similar measures, and to increase their rate of recycling.

The annual event was this year held in conjunction with the Lebanese Army, the U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon and the ministries of Youth and Sports, Education, Tourism, Agriculture, Public Works and Transport, Interior and Public Health, and a number of municipalities across the country, and was sponsored by BankMed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 21, 2012, on page 4.

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