About 20 kilometers north of Beirut, Dalida Sneifer and Marc Beyrouthy walk amid pallets and tarpaulins that are slowly sinking into the rainwater-soaked soil. "If only you knew what land costs here in Kaslik – building here would generate millions in profits," says Beyrouthy, a professor and member of the Kaslik Holy Spirit University Green Committee. Happily, the university management agreed to erect a waste management center there instead.
The Green Committee was established in 2016, one year after Lebanon's trash crisis began. That in turn was caused by the authorities closing down the Naamé landfill south of Beirut, without having a backup plan.
"To students outraged by the images of waste piling up on the streets of the capital and its suburbs, in rivers and forests, we said: 'What happens here, at USEK, it’s not the state’s responsibility, it’s yours," Beyrouthy notes. "If you start sorting waste, we can show that a 10,000-person community like ours can take action, find solutions and set an example.’”
So far only about 50 kilos out of the 350 kilos of organic waste produced every day at USEK is actually transformed into compost, says Sneifer, the committee coordinator. There are four kitchens on campus but they refuse to sort their waste, she explains. The Green Committee is pressing to make sorting mandatory, but meanwhile at least there’s at least 50 kg of organic waste that won't end up in the sea or in nature, Beyrouthy points out.
According to a 2014 report published by Sweepnet (the Regional Network for the Exchange of Information and Expertise on Solid Waste in the Mashreq and Maghreb Countries), 15 percent of the waste produced in Lebanon is composted, eight percent recycled, 48 percent landfilled and 29 percent end up in illegal garbage pits.
Composting is a major issue in Lebanon because 52 percent of the country’s waste is organic.
Aware of the situation, Sneifer is working to turn students into eco-citizens. Marc Aoun, co-founder of Compost Baladi, the company that installed compost boxes at USEK, aims to make this practice universally accessible. "Our objective is to inspire behavior change and offer relatively cheap solutions [a 200-liter composting box costs $220, while a large 1,100-litre composting box for a building costs $650] while ensuring that there are no nuisances, such as odors or flies," explains Aoun, whose company, founded in 2017, has only recently become profitable.
Compost Baladi employs six full-time and four part-time employees and has already installed about 50 Earth Cube composting units at the American University of Beirut, in companies, villages and a camp for Syrian refugees in eastern Lebanon. It also works with municipalities.
"Even some professors at the American University of Beirut, despite their commitment to environmental protection, find it difficult to actually compost, mainly because it requires them to change their habits," says the 25-year-old, standing in front of compost crates installed near the university professors’ houses. "We try to set up an integrated system, so that the act of composting is as close as possible to the act of throwing garbage in the trash bin."
At the American University campus, novice composters simply throw their sorted organic waste into the boxes and cover it with dead leaves to act as a biofilter and prevent flies from entering. A small motor sends air into the box at regular intervals to enable the decomposition of waste by aerobic bacteria and the formation of compost without added water.
"Our goal is for nobody to be able to say it’s impossible to compost," says Aoun, who regrets his fellow citizens’ apathy. "Since the mountains of garbage have disappeared from their daily lives, they feel that the problem of waste management has been solved,” he says.
However, nothing was fundamentally solved after 2015, and a new waste crisis is looming with the impending saturation of the Bourj Hammoud landfill, which was set up as an emergency measure on the Beirut coast after the 2015 crisis. Reopening the Naamé landfill or installing an incinerator in Beirut are some of the options being discussed.
Aoun is scheduled to meet Lebanon's new Environment Minister, Fadi Jreissati, to convince him of the benefits of composting. In the meantime, he’s trying to raise awareness among different municipalities, including Beirut. "The president of the municipality wants 200 of the 800 tons of waste Beirut produces per day to be recycled and composted," he says. "We talked with him about implementing a pilot project to compost 1.5 tons of organic waste per day. If it works, it will serve as an example and could be replicated.”
This article is being published as part of Earth Beats, an international and collaborative initiative gathering 18 news media outlets from around the world to focus on solutions to waste and pollution.