BEIRUT: With consumption and production reportedly on the rise, Lebanon’s seeming addiction to plastic raises questions of regulation and the role of the private sector. “There aren’t any statistics available, but ... I would say the demand for [single-use plastic] has grown anywhere from 14 to 18 percent over the past five years,” Fadi Abboud, former Tourism Minister and owner of General Packaging Industries told The Daily Star.
Abboud noted that the growing demand for single-use plastic was concurrent with the increased popularity of restaurant delivery.
“You could say that Lebanon is taking off in the ‘takeaway revolution,’” he laughed.
The impact of plastic consumption in Lebanon is clearly visible with the ubiquity of plastic bottles and packaging littering both urban and natural landscapes, but a lack of hard data makes it impossible to discern just how Lebanon’s usage stacks up. Illegal factories operating without regulation have muddied the waters further.
Khalil Cherry, secretary-general of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists – a lobbying group for industries – admitted that no official reports have been released concerning the number of plastic products produced and consumed by the public. Also the owner of the Plastic Chemical Company, Cherry estimated that about 120,000 tons of raw materials are imported to produce plastic annually, although he noted that some companies also recycle old plastic to create new products.
“We use plastic for everything,” Cherry said. “In other countries, you see a shift into using paper bags, but certainly not here. ... Plastic has become embedded in our culture.”
According to a 2015 BLOM Bank report, the Lebanese plastic industry was one of few to have been “shielded from the morose economic environment.”
“The Syrian crisis, which had [a ripple effect] on key sectors of the Lebanese economy, such as real estate, construction and tourism, did not greatly affect the plastic industry,” Riwa Daou, lead researcher of the report, wrote.
Daou, highlighted the industry’s advantages, including the constant demand for its product, the lack of competition and the material’s durability against time.
“Economically, there are no other viable alternatives” to plastic, Daou told The Daily Star Tuesday.
The research analyst explained that the material is the cheapest option available to satisfy constant demand from the food packaging, home furniture, container and agricultural sectors.
Greenpeace estimates that approximately 700 tons of plastic are generated daily in Lebanon.
“The latest figure regarding the estimated annual waste generated in Lebanon is around 2.55 million tons, excluding consumption by Syrian refugees,” Julien Jreissati, Arab world campaigner at Greenpeace Mediterranean, told The Daily Star.
The estimate of 700 tons of waste is a conservative figure, Jreissati said. He suggested the figure might be closer to 800 tons – a notable portion of which is dumped into the sea.
While Abboud acknowledged the problem, he pointed his finger at the government.
“We cannot blame the [plastic] industry; we have to blame the recycling industry and the Environment Ministry for making recycling difficult,” Abboud said.
ALI’s Cherry made the same point, noting that it was “up to the government” to create proper laws regulating manufacture and recycling. “If change comes from the government, citizens will follow,” he said.
While Cherry noted the lobbying group’s efforts to promote “green” practices, he acknowledged interest was low.
“Not enough people see the value. The commitment is not there and the economic situation is not helping the case ... Everything will cost money, despite the long-term value.”
Sammy Kayed, development manager at the Nature Conservation Center at the American University of Beirut, noted that waste accumulation – particularly plastics – was in fact in the interest of the government, which has been considering using incinerators to tackle excess waste.
According to Kayed, plastic can make this process more efficient, given that organic material alone takes more energy to burn.
Kayed added that reducing the amount of waste bound for landfills would run contrary to the government’s agenda of extending sea-adjacent land using garbage – a practice known as land reclamation.
Beirut’s BIEL waterfront is one example of artificial land built on a foundation of trash.
While Kayed did not give specific evidence regarding the relationship between the government and the plastic industry, he was confident that such a relationship existed -- a view which he expressed as personal and unaffiliated to AUB's NCC.
“Lobbying would be a sweet way of putting it. It’s not lobbying. I’m sure that the same power figures holding authority are the owners and major stakeholders in the industry itself,” he said.
Both Cherry and Abboud denied this, saying ties between the government and the industry were minimal, existing mainly at lower levels.
Local NGOs and concerned citizens have meanwhile taken it upon themselves to deal with the issue.
“We’re working with Beit Shaar, an active municipality with a history of starting things, to begin putting a tax on plastic bags at a supermarket franchise there.
“It’s in the negotiation phase, but we’re definitely moving forward,” Kayed said.
The practice of taxing bags has begun in countries across the world.
In England, a 5 pence ($0.07) tax has been introduced per plastic bag.
In the first six months following the tax, supermarkets reported giving away only 500 million bags as compared to over 7 billion during the same period the previous year, according to data from the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Last month, Kenya took extreme measures to outlaw the production, sale and use of plastic bags.
Failure to comply with this ban could result in a hefty $40,000 fine or imprisonment of up to four years.
Joslyn Kehdy, the founder of local NGO Recycle Lebanon, sees Lebanon’s crisis as requiring civilians to step up.
“We have the ‘Bala Plastic’ movement, to show the public what those alternatives to plastic are. We’re creating an ‘Eco-Souk’ in Batroun to have as many people see why they should change the ways they use plastic while being introduced to businesses offering those other options,” Kehdy said.
“While we are working on the industry level, speaking with companies, there is also a large community-based approach.”