In Lebanon, no one knows what to do with the garbage — not even the government.
Over the past few months, it has piled up so high on the streets of Beirut that the mounds reach above pedestrians’ heads. People hold their noses and squint their eyes while trudging through the horrible stench.
Many say lack of political infrastructure and agreement between sects are to blame for this recent garbage crisis. The country has been without a president for 17 months and counting — the longest stretch of time it has gone without one. The parliament has held 30 sessions to discuss a candidate, but to no avail.
The crisis began in June as protesters demanded the closing of Lebanon’s only landfill in the town of Naameh, located south of capital city Beirut. The landfill, which opened in 1997, was only supposed to operate for a few years to control the waste problems Lebanon already had.
Over a decade later, these landfills are releasing influxes of pollution, harming not only the environment but local people as well. Residents of Naameh blocked off the roads to hinder garbage trucks from disposing their waste in the already-filled dumps. But with no plan B, the trucks have nowhere to dump the trash and as a result, have stopped collecting it altogether.
“This should not have been the case had [the parliament] implemented a recycling plan or some productive thing to do with the garbage,” said Zalfa Halabi, a resident of Beirut. “The garbage has started to pile up on the streets, literally blocking [them] and the city. It’s everywhere.”
This nationwide trash epidemic has caused an international movement entitled “#YouStink.”
Nour Hodeib, originally from Beirut and an organizer of #YouStink protests in New York City, said that these protests have taken place in not only New York and Beirut, but in other major cities such as London, Berlin, Montreal, Paris and Boston.
“New York is not our battlefield, but the United Nations is here,” he said. “And awareness needs to be spread.”
Hodeib said he was FaceTiming with his sister while she was at the Aug. 22 protests in Beirut, where police officials opened fire at protesters. They were attacked with tear gas, rubber bullets and water hoses.
“The police attacks were unexpected, but they were not surprising,” he said. “It’s common for the Lebanese regime to practice violent methods.”
Hodeib said that because of the thousands of protesters in attendance, the officials’ attempts at dispersing the crowd were useless. About 5,000 people protested the capital city on Aug. 22, and an additional 15,000 protested the following day, according to Hodeib.
He said that because the government hasn’t been active in finding a solution to the garbage crisis, individual families and communities have started their own “green” initiatives.
These communities have taken to recycling their own garbage and separating it by recyclable products, organic products and compostable products. The Hodeib and Halabi families have both started similar initiatives of their own.
Halabi said that she and her family donate their recyclable products to arcenciel, a Lebanese non-profit, apolitical and non-confessional association whose mission is “to participate in the sustainable development of society by supporting fragile groups and integrating marginalized persons,” according to their website. Halabi said that arcenciel’s sustainable efforts include creating wheelchairs from recycled plastic bottle caps.
“[My family] became very aware of how garbage is something that affects us all and that we are responsible for the trash we produce,” she said. “There are ways to avoid accumulation of trash but the thing is that these are family initiatives, and not a government imposed [policy].”
Though the garbage crisis is a major issue in Lebanon right now, it is not the only infrastructural problem the country is facing. These problems include fickle electricity, an unreliable water system, as well as socioeconomic issues between classes.
“We don’t have electricity 24 hours a day, we don’t always have running water, and so the way things work is that we buy electricity and water from private companies which are in part owned by the same [governmental figures],” Halabi said. “The problem is that all of [the many] sects want to be in power and they can never seem to agree, so they would rather let things be and make a mess of this place.”
She said the #YouStink movement is calling for all of the people in parliament to resign so that Lebanese citizens can elect a new government — in part because those leaders have continued to re-elect themselves without the consideration of their constituents.
While Environment Minister Mohammed al-Mashnou is at large fault for the garbage crisis that is his primary responsibility, Halabi said that all members of the Lebanese parliament are equally to blame.
“But so are we [the people],” she said. “It took us awhile just to say that we are fed up with this system, with corruption and that we want a healthier, humane life.”
As the trash within the infrastructure of the parliament grows, so does the trash on the streets of Beirut.
Hodeib said the #YouStink movement has proposed policies to solve the garbage issue and that the government needs to find an agreeable solution such as a recycling-based policy.
“We want factories to recycle garbage, and we want the government to deal with the issue in a green and ecological way,” Hodeib said. “If this crisis continues, it will be drastic. It’s already a catastrophe, and it is escalating very fast.”
Written on October 30, 2015 for International Reporting with Deborah Amos of NPR.