BEIRUT: Reduce, reuse, recycle – that’s what Lebanon’s environmental activists are striving for. But with the country’s trash crisis far from solved, private and non-profit recycling services continue to play a vital role in steering waste away from overflowing landfills. Since the 2015 protests at the peak of Lebanon’s garbage crisis, several services and facilities have opened in Beirut to re-route plastics, metals, paper and glass. While all have attempted to fill the gaping holes in the government’s waste management strategy, the challenge has not been an easy one to meet.
Despite the number of initiative introduced, not all have succeeded in offering consistent and widespread services. The Daily Star spoke with four different enterprises with different operating models, discussing obstacles in providing waste-reduction services to Lebanon’s most populated city.
A NEW INITIATIVE
Live Love Recycle, launched in the last few weeks, offers two free pickups a month for Beirut residents. The initiative is spearheaded by local NGO Live Love Beirut, with support from French NGO ACTED and funding from the United Nations’ World Food Program.
Through the LLR mobile app, users can schedule to have their recyclables (excluding glass) picked up within 30 minutes by an LLR motorist operating an eco-friendly electric scooter. Each pickup has a set limit of 60 liters to ensure all items can fit inside the crate installed on the back of each scooter.
At the moment, the app is only available for Android users, and about 800 individuals have signed up so far, LLR project manager George Bitar said. An iOS version is currently pending approval from the Apple Store. For now, iPhone users can put their names on the waiting list on LLR’s website.
For those without smart phones, you’re out of luck. All pickup coordination between clients and LLR motorists must be organized via the mobile app. No phone calls, no emails – just a few swipes.
Speaking from the LLR warehouse in Beirut’s eastern suburb of Ain al-Rummaneh, Bitar spoke about Live Love Recycle’s two-pronged initiative – one social, the other environmental.
As part of the project, some 430 individuals from vulnerable communities who qualify for WFP aid are provided with technical training and jobs – a stipulation of the WFP grant. Approximately 400 men work varying shifts to pick up recyclables on LLR’s electric scooters, while an additional 30 women are trained to help with logistics and cook for the team.
At the end of the day, all materials are taken to Arc en Ciel’s sorting facility in Mount Lebanon’s Jisr al-Wati. There, AEC sorts and sells LLR’s collected materials free of charge. Glass is not accepted given the contextual limitations on its reusability. The Bekaa’s Maliban factory, one of Lebanon’s last large-scale glass factories, was bombed by Israeli planes in 2006 – one of the many blows to the country’s infrastructure during the conflict.
Mario Goraieb, head of AEC’s Environment Department, noted that only a few artisans in Lebanon accept recycled glass. “There are very few places we can send glass recyclables to, so we don’t accept them at all.”
A VETERAN SERVICE
Beginning operations in 2009, AEC is among the few veterans of Lebanon’s recycling industry.
After expanding in 2013, it now has the capacity to take in about five to six tons of recyclables daily from Beirut alone.
In addition to Beirut, the NGO offers pickups in the Chouf’s Damour and in the Bekaa Valley, where it houses a second sorting facility.
“We have about 600 clients in Beirut, Damour and the Bekaa together and charge $16 per pickup,” Goraieb told The Daily Star.
“The majority of our revenue comes from this fee, but many others just come and drop off their items free of charge. The money we make selling the recyclables is minimal.”
Goraieb noted the mutual benefits of the collaboration with LLR.
“There are many challenges in this industry, but pickups are certainly one of them. It costs money to license and operate trucks, especially when there is so much traffic in Beirut. So, having Live Love contribute pickups for us is quite helpful. They’re able to pick up much faster on their bikes.”
MODEL TOWARD SELF-SUSTAINABILITY
As an established NGO, AEC enjoys funding from a variety of donors, and its recycling initiative provides enough revenue for the operations to break even.
For LLR, however, the next challenge will be to develop its own sustainability plan. Edward Johnson, spokesperson for the WFP, said that the new recycling initiative will continue to be funded over the next few months to get it through its pilot stage. After that, LLR is expected to seek other financing options.
“Within the next few weeks, they will make a decision [regarding] which route they take to fund the project,” he told The Daily Star.
Bitar, well aware of this obstacle, remains positive. “We’re talking with many people in the private and public sector to decide what the next steps are and we’re open to working with anyone,” he said.
“We’re doing everything possible to keep this free because we believe that this should be accessible to everyone. But as things develop, other options will be considered.”
Lack of future funding could threaten the salaries of some of the 430 workers employed by LLR.
Johnson, however, noted that the vocational training provided will nevertheless increase their employability.
Local business Recycle Beirut has also faced challenges with coming up with the finances to expand their services, after a grant from the International Committee of the Red Cross jumpstarted its project in 2015.
Now, Recycle Beirut works according to a model similar to AEC, offering regular pickups for all items, including glass, at $10 per pickup.
After being sorted in the Recycle Beirut warehouse located in south Beirut’s Jnah, the recyclables are sold to factories around Lebanon.
Processing about 6.7 tons of material daily from over 10,000 clients, Recycle Beirut is the most popular recycling service in the city.
Still, the profits are not enough for expansion, according to Recycle Beirut’s co-founder Kassem Kazzak: “I would say about 80 to 90 percent of our finances is from the $10 we charge. Selling the recyclables is not particularly lucrative, and there are some things, like the popular plastic take-out containers, that we give away for free. It’s not made out of the same plastic that is used by the majority of other factories.”
Kazzak recounted the hurdles the Recycle Beirut team has faced in their three years of work. While the organization has outlined a plan to increase its services, it is struggling to find donors.
“We’ve been doing this for a while. We’re self-sustainable, we have the data, we have the plans and we know we are scalable. We want to compost, to expand our sorting center and install drop off points, but we simply need the funds to do so.”
Recycle Beirut’s aspirations to expand have led to controversy. The company launched a campaign against the United Nations and the European Union, accusing them of funding “failed projects” rather than providing Recycle Beirut with finances for their ready-made model.
The organization has come under fire from U.N. and EU representatives, as well as citizens, for this approach. Ultimately, sufficient funding and a workable plan for sustainability is “crucial,” Gary Kurkjian, founder of pickup service Ganatch, told The Daily Star. As an NGO, Ganatch works similarly to LLR, picking up recyclables from residents in Metn and Beirut and sending them to a sorting facility.
While Ganatch has previously received aid from Mercy Corps and the U.K. government, these grants have since been spent to actualize the grassroots initiative and tackle Lebanon's waste crisis.
Kurkjian was unwilling to disclose Ganatch’s current number of clients and daily intake, but he noted that he had learned from his three years in the industry that experience and money is needed for widespread success.
“I can’t tell you at the moment details of our model, but we’re working on optimization. At the end of the day, we want to make sure our clients know that we’re trustworthy and trying our best to advocate for environmental [justice] in Lebanon.”