In the basement of a building in Jounieh, north of Beirut, some end-of-life electronic devices are piled on the ground, while others are neatly packaged and placed on shelves. The basement is the nonprofit Ecoserv’s headquarters, where electronic waste treatment, a long and complex process that includes dismantling, packaging and sending waste to recycling plants, is taken very seriously. Two specialized technicians, equipped with masks and gloves, work carefully to sort the multiple components of objects such as computers and radios — an essential step towards recycling e-waste.
Gaby Kassab, founder and president of this association created in March 2018, has spent his entire career in major electronics companies, and several years abroad. "I have experienced first-hand the challenge of managing electronic waste," he says. And what a challenge!
According to a 2017 United Nations University report, the world generated 44.7 million tons of electrical and electronic waste in 2016, or 6.1 kg per person per year —equal to the weight of nearly 4,500 Eiffel towers. This volume is expected to increase to 52.2 million tons by 2021 (6.8 kg per capita). Only 20 percent of this waste gets collected and recycled, according to the report.
"When I returned to Lebanon, I wanted to help find a solution to this kind of waste, which is still poorly understood since we rarely know what it really contains," explains Kassab.
As with all other types of waste, Lebanon’s management of used electronic devices is sketchy at best: they end up in nature, in landfills, or in the hands of unskilled people. To recover metal and plastic, these people burn used appliances or dismantle them higgledy-piggledy, risking generating toxic pollution, particularly by heavy metals and treated plastics that are particularly dangerous when they contaminate soil, water or air.
There may be NGOs in Lebanon that devote part of their activity to the controlled dismantling of electronic waste, but few are interested in its final destination, says Kassab. "And that's precisely where we focus our action," he notes. “We are now the only ones able to issue a certificate of destruction for this particular waste. We have an agreement with a British recycler, EnviroServ, which has a branch in Dubai, for materials that cannot be processed locally [such as electronic boards, which include materials that can only be processed by certified recyclers]. As far as plastics and metals are concerned, we transfer them to Lebanese recycling plants.”
Ecoserv also prides itself on handling all kinds of electronic waste in a safe and professional manner. "Our technicians are trained by the recycler with whom we have signed a contract. Training is updated every three months to ensure that we apply the safest dismantling methods," explains Kassab. "We have already collected about 15 tons of e-waste since founding our NGO.”
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To achieve its mission, Ecoserv still faces many challenges. "Our goal is to cover the entire territory," says Kassab. “One of the difficulties is designing a waste collection route. To make things easier, we have placed buckets in nearly 40 collection points such as stores, universities and town halls.”
However, extending the collection network has a cost, especially in a country where nobody wants to pay for this service. While recycling plants in Lebanon and abroad pay for the raw material sent by Ecoserv, these revenues do not cover the NGO’s transport costs. It is thanks to a silent financial partner that the NGO can employ six workers and has continued to operate since its creation.
Though its challenges are many, Ecoserv has hope for the future. "Our goal is to one day have a real e-waste treatment plant in Lebanon, covering all operations, from dismantling to recycling.” For investors to be interested in such a project, collection would have to take place on a larger scale, and attitudes would have to change. "We need legislation to make citizens aware of the consequences of throwing such waste in the garbage," says Kassab. "Imagine if such a plant could receive and treat electronic waste from the whole region – that would be a real boon for Lebanon.”
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.