Philip Issa| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: When demonstrators closed the road to the Naameh landfill in 2014, they captured the public’s attention like few others ever have: For a week, trash piled up along Beirut’s streets and fouled the city’s damp, winter air.

With the Cabinet not revealing any plans to manage waste in Beirut and Mount Lebanon after Sukleen’s contract expires on July 17, and Naameh residents threatening to renew action to shutter the town’s dump, the capital’s streets are gearing up for a repeat of the 2014 scenario.

Earlier this year, the government promised residents of the Naameh area that the notorious dump site would be shut down in July. Residents of Naameh, home to the landfill that receives most of the region’s waste, have threatened to close access to the facility if the government asks Sukleen to continue to dump there as a stopgap measure.

At the heart of the matter is finding sites to process, compost and dispose of waste. When, after a year of searching, the Environment Ministry could not convince a single municipality to host a new landfill, the environment minister, Mohammad Machnouk, placed his faith in the free market instead.

“[The private sector] can offer residents and municipalities appropriate incentives that would lead to an agreement between them,” he said in December.

So, in the Cabinet’s first decree of 2015, it announced that it would be up to the companies that win Sukleen’s expiring waste-management contracts to “secure” disposal sites at their own expense. The result instead was to scare off bidders. Not even Sukleen, the incumbent contract holder, submitted a bid to manage Beirut’s waste.

“We will not accept to be portrayed as the bad guys,” a high-level source at the company told The Daily Star. “That’s why we did not bid.”

Bad guys, because Naameh has given waste management a bad name. The Naameh landfill opened in 1997 as a component of the government’s “emergency plan” to close the putrid Burj Hammoud dump. The plan was supposed to be provisionary, and Naameh’s gates were set to close in 2003. But successive governments kept postponing the date, and Sukleen overfilled the landfill far beyond any conceivable capacity. Originally appointed to receive 2 million tons of trash, Naameh has received over 15 million to date.

From near or from far, the landfill looks like a glacier of waste. Its odor is suffocating. “The people of Naameh cannot bear it anymore. They cannot live there anymore,” said Paul Abi Rachid, the president of Lebanon EcoMovement, an NGO.

In May, the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the government agency tasked with managing the waste management tenders, announced that it did not receive enough bids to select winners competitively. The announcement threw the government’s plan to quickly close Naameh into disarray, and the Cabinet, deadlocked since June 5, has yet to readdress the issue.

The Cabinet meets Thursday, but it is unknown whether it will take the unilateral decision to divert waste to other landfills after July 17, while it buys time to reopen the waste management tenders. The Environment Ministry will meet Friday with the Naameh area municipalities, according to Walid Abu Harb Aridi, the president of the Union of Municipalities of Al-Gharb al-Aala and Chehar. Aridi told The Daily Star that he still does not know what the ministry will propose, but that he is “pessimistic.” The ministry refused to comment.

In the meantime, Naameh residents and civil society activists are planning a sit-in at Naameh on July 17. “We are going to implement the decision taken by the government, with our bodies,” said Ajwad Ayache, an activist with Close Naameh Landfill, promising to close access to the site.

He expects 400 demonstrators to attend. “Nothing is going to move us from the entrance to Naameh.”

Ayache expressed his frustration with the endless delays. “[The Cabinet] made a decree, No. 1, [to close the landfill]. We don’t want any confrontation, we are reasonable, we understand – but we don’t want to die from this goddamn killer landfill,” he said.

Demonstrators, including Ayache, closed access to Naameh for several days in 2014. Without its landfill, Sukleen was forced to stop collecting garbage from the streets, and for a week Beirut turned into a fetid nightmare.

Midway through the sit-in, demonstrators met with Tammam Salam, at the time the prime minister-designate, but decided to return to the street. Police forcibly broke their blockade three days later.

Asked whether the demonstrators would yield again, Ayache said, “our resolve is unshakable – 100 percent.”

“There will be no physical action from us,” he added.

“Of course, the right to defend yourself is always there. It’s a God given right. But we have no intention whatsoever but to breathe normal clean air.”

It did not have to be this way. “Naameh landfill should have lasted 30 years, for its size,” said Ali Darwish, the president of Green Line Association, another environmental NGO.

If Lebanon were to recycle its waste more efficiently, it would send far less tonnage to its fills.

Beirut and Mount Lebanon produce approximately 2,500 tons of waste per day, according to a 2013 report by Sweep-Net, a Middle Eastern waste expertise network. The Environment Ministry assisted in the report’s preparation. Of this, only approximately 460 tons, or 18 percent, are composted or recycled.

But 50 percent of Lebanon’s urban waste is organic, and a further 43 percent is paper, cardboard, plastic, metal, cans or glass, according to a 2010 report by the same organization. Much of this quantity – approaching 90 percent of the waste – can be recycled.

“That leaves only 10 percent [of the waste] for the landfill,” Abi Rachid said.

The government appeared to have noticed the inefficiency, and in the tenders for new waste management contracts the Cabinet required bidders to commit to “recovering” 60 percent of the waste they collect in the first seven years of their contract, and 75 percent in the next three. The remainder must be landfilled in a sanitary way, the government said in its decree.

But without enough bids, the government is hurtling toward a showdown over Naameh on July 17. Sukleen can collect garbage for two days if it can’t reach the landfill, the waste-management company source told The Daily Star.

After that, Beirut residents should prepare for another garbage hell – and this time in the sweltering summer heat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 09, 2015, on page 4.