Mazin Sidahmed| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: As the debate in Cabinet intensifies over the best means to manage Lebanon’s thorny issue of waste management, two workable solutions stand tabled: the building of new landfills or the establishment of the incinerators. Either option, however, comes with its own pros and cons.

The issue of waste management threatened to paralyze the work of the government as Cabinet ministers Thursday remained sharply divided on how best to deal with Lebanon’s trash problem, failing to come to an agreement on the fate of the controversial Naameh landfill.

Sources close to the talks say that the main options on the table are to either replace the notorious dump with a new landfill or approve the construction of incinerators.

Currently, landfills are the most popular solution to Lebanon’s waste problems, as they are used to dispose of over 50 percent of the country’s solid waste, according to statistics from the Environment Ministry.

But according to Dr. George Ayoub, an environmental engineering professor at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon’s landscape is not suitable for landfills.

“Lebanon cannot afford land to be used for … solid waste dumping. We don’t have enough,” he explained.

“[Wherever] you want to [build a landfill] you’re surrounded by towns and cities and housing, it’s a major problem.”

Ayoub said that countries such as Saudi Arabia that have vast desert space are more suited for landfilling solutions. He also said that any land used to build landfills would be condemned for the next 80 years as it would continue to emit toxic gases.

Beyond the pungent smell that landfills emit, they are also hazardous to locals as they release toxic gases. The fermentation and decomposition of the waste releases methane, carbon dioxide and – in extreme cases – hydrogen sulfide, Ayoub said.

The contested Naameh landfill was built in 1997 and was intended to be a six-year project. Seventeen years later the landfill is still standing and has reached five times its original capacity.

Beirut and Mount Lebanon were flooded in trash last year when protesters blocked the entrance to the landfill until police intervened and shut down the protest.

Jan. 17, 2015, was originally set as the closure date for the landfill until Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk stated that it would not be closed until April 2015, sparking a dispute within Cabinet.

Ministers affiliated with the Progressive Socialist Party are adamant that Naameh be closed on time. Also, ministers from the Kataeb party say that Machnouk’s waste management plan is flawed.

Incinerators that turn waste into energy have been presented as an alternative solution to the current landfill option.

Incineration is a somewhat controversial method that involves burning waste and converting it into ash, flue gas and heat. If the gas released from an incineration plant is not properly filtered it can be very toxic for residents living nearby.

However, in defense of incinerators, the Lebanese government argues that if the waste is treated beforehand – a process that involves separation – and then burned it can be used as an energy source.

It may be difficult to secure a location to build an incinerator as such facilities have a tumultuous history in Lebanon. A large incinerator located in the Amrousieh suburb of Beirut was burned down in 1997 by locals weary of the fumes it was emitting.

Some reports indicate that Riad Assaad, owner of the firm South Lebanon Construction and close friend of PSP leader Walid Jumblatt, has already ordered the necessary equipment to build a waste-to-energy incinerator plant. When contacted by The Daily Star Assaad denied the reports.

“People keep telling me that I have, but I have not,” he said, adding that he would bid on a tender if it was issued by the government.

The issuance of a tender to build incinerators was further delayed Wednesday as Cabinet ministers could not agree on an implementation plan going forward, despite reports that Machnouk and Kataeb ministers came to an agreement that day. One of the Kataeb ministers’ main grievances is that the specifications of the tender do not stipulate that companies have the required experience to set up incinerators. The tender will be open to companies that build landfills, incinerators or both.

Specifications for building incinerators are currently being created by the Danish consulting firm Ramdoll. The Kataeb ministers argue that these specifications should be considered before awarding the tender and potential locations should also be identified by the government.

Nader Nakib, president of G, a green building NGO, says that the government may be able to secure a location by doing way with the preconceptions of locals regarding the side effects of incineration. “Ignorance is what [the government takes advantage of. Nobody knows, nobody understands,” he lamented.

In his opinion the country would be better off keeping the Naameh landfill open for a period as no viable alternative is currently available.

In the long term, Nakib thinks that separation and recycling of waste, combined with the incineration of the remnants, is the best solution for Lebanon’s solid waste problem. This would involve building a hangar that has a separation table in which waste is manually split into organic and recyclable material.

Nakib said the compost generated from this could be used in Lebanon’s mountainous region and some waste could be used in waste-to-energy schemes. He added that this could be set up in a month but lamented that the option was not being explored by responsible parties as they push for incineration.

“It’s not going to be easy [to set up an incineration plant] but [the government] is trying to portray it as the only way out. They’ve been pretty successful.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 09, 2015, on page 3.
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