DAMOUR, Lebanon: Plumes of smoke rise along the Beirut-Sidon highway as trash burns – a toxic response to Lebanon’s waste crisis. But 51-year-old George Aoun has traded in kerosene for worms on his banana plantation beside the Damour River. “We used to burn all the banana leaves on the side of the road, or wherever we could find the space,” Aoun told The Daily Star.
“Now, the worms do all the work,” he added, lifting a pile of banana waste exposing a farm of munching worms.
After inheriting 40,000 square meters of land from his father 10-years ago, Aoun set aside his work in engineering to maintain the family farm. Nestled between the Damour River and the Damour-Beiteddine highway, the land primarily cultivates bananas with several other fruit trees in between.
While the harvest has provided for Aoun and his family, it also creates tons of organic waste.
“About two years ago, they approached me to teach me about vermicomposting,” Aoun said, referring to the American University of Beirut’s Nature Conservation Center. “It has been successful ever since,” he added.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Lebanon produced 85,633 tons of bananas in 2014. While the banana plant’s strong waterproof leaves can be used for weaving or fuel once dried, Aoun and many other Lebanese banana farmers have little use for them, often opting for low-cost strategies for disposal.
Now, by layering organic banana waste on top of earthworm filled compost, he no longer worries about burning or adding to landfills.
According to a 2014 report from the Environment Ministry, Lebanon’s waste is composed of 52.5 percent organic material. Local environmental groups however, estimate figures up to 70 percent.
“It doesn’t take much time for the leaves to [degrade],” Aoun said. “The worms eat them fairly quickly, and then they produce their own waste into the compost. When everything is done, we put the compost back into the farm mixed with fertilizer.”
Hands deep into the decaying organic matter, the farmer shook his head affirming he would never go back to burning organic waste.
Aoun’s composting initiative is not novel for Lebanon. The waste crisis that hit some of Lebanon’s most populous areas in 2015, prompted a quiet fury of grassroots initiatives to tackle the literally overflowing disaster. Composting has been one popular strategy in plans of action.
Antoine Abou Moussa, the 29-year-old founder of Compost Baladi, began his social enterprise in early 2017 to appeal to a “small to medium” market of prospective composters. With the support of Fondation Diane, an organization financing eco-entrepreneurs, Abou Moussa has succeeded in appealing to private households, schools, universities and small municipalities.
“Our biggest projects are composting sites in the Aintoura municipality in Kesrouan, and another for the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik,” Abou Moussa told The Daily Star. “We use low cost and low tech solutions for communities with a maximum of about 5,000 inhabitants to achieve at least an 80 percent target of [recyling non-organic] and [composting] organic material.”
While Aoun’s banana farm relies on worms to break up organic material, Abou Moussa focuses on Aerated Static Pile composting.
The ASP strategy employs a specific container allowing organic material to degrade without the constant need to turn the pile, thus requiring less maintenance.
When asked why he has opted to approach the waste-crisis issue on a smaller scale, Abou Moussa explained that not all communities had the same needs.
“For example, when you go to the coastal areas, you see that their needs are more industrial because there are hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “But most of our clients are living in much less densely [populated] areas.”
Abou Moussa noted that moving toward industrial initiatives would involve the government, where he would likely be faced with a bureaucratic “deadlock.” He said making such a move was not yet worth it for Compost Baladi. “For now, we’re not venturing to that market, we’re proving ourselves successful in this [smaller] field.”
Ziad Abi Chaker, CEO of Cedar Environmental and a veteran in Lebanon’s environmental initiatives, has sought to employ more drastic measures.
Founding Cedar Environmental in February 1999, Chaker endeavored to employ Dynamic Composting Technology in treating municipal waste. His industrial approach has been a success in Metn’s Beit Mery, which in 2016 became Lebanon’s first municipality to go “zero-waste.”
“See, the obstacle in large-scale composting is that it needs substantial investment, and I haven’t really seen that with grassroots initiatives. They are taking small steps, composting in small boxes and such, but it’s not on an industrial scale.”
He added that “it’s positive ... but at the end of the day it’s not enough. We have to think much bigger. If you don’t take the grassroots initiative and multiply it so it has impact on the whole community, then it stays like that – a small grassroots project.”
In addition to Beit Mery, Cedar Environmental has built and continues to manage four industrial composting facilities in the south.
“On average let’s say in Beit Mery, we see 15 tons of municipal solid waste per day. On average, 60 to 70 percent of that is organic waste. So you’re talking about massive amounts here,” Chaker said.
Dr. Issam Bashour, professor of soils and plant nutrition at the American University of Beirut, called for a more holistic approach.
However, he emphasized the need to sort out organic material at the source, rather than relying on municipal sorting.
“Composting will not work if we don’t separate on source. If we succeed at separating the peel of the banana, the core of an apple before and compost it at the source then yes,” he said, “you will see results.”
However, Bashour was not particularly optimistic in seeing a considerable change result from composting in Lebanon’s near future.
“It’s not a lucrative business,” he said frankly. “We do it because we need to get rid of it [the waste]. But there are many obstacles. Some municipalities do not have the space to have a proper system.”
Nonetheless, Aoun’s success in recycling his organic waste back into his farmland offers some hope.
“I know that I would never go back to burning my waste, and I think others would do the same. They just need to be taught how to do it.”