Garbage governance: Poor waste management causes environmental crises | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 27.08.2015
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Garbage governance: Poor waste management causes environmental crises

Trash is a big problem at the moment for Lebanon - and for governments all over the world. It can lead to major environmental problems. But there are solutions - if the authorities are ready to take them on.

Tons of garbage has continued to pile up on the streets of Lebanon's capital Beirut as the government struggles to deal with a situation that is quickly turning into an environmental crisis for the country.

Household waste has remained uncollected for weeks in the Middle Eastern city after authorities closed an overflowing landfill site without finding an alternative place to dump the trash.

Protesters from a grassroots movement with the apt title of "You Stink!" have taken to the streets over past weeks to demonstrate over the garbage - which has become symbolic for the corruption and inadequacies of the current regime.

But non-governmental organizations point out that the problem could have a big environmental impact.

Lebanon's waste disposal problem

"Waste emits methane and other greenhouse gases that are polluting and can generate fires, which also emit very toxic gases," said Olivia Maarmari, head of the environment program at Beirut-based nonprofit Arc en Ciel.

The trash crisis in Beirut is just a small part of a more serious problem in Lebanon with regard to domestic waste disposal. The small country has little space for landfills, and a widespread recycling and composting program has yet to be introduced.

"The government doesn’t have a strategy regarding waste management," Maamari told Deutsche Welle.

Lebanese people in street protest over waste management crisis

Lebanese citizens have taken to the streets over the waste management crisis

Nada Abdelsater-Abusamra, head of Lebanese Transparency Association - a non-governmental organization focused on curbing corruption and promoting good governance - agreed with this assessment. "They had zero plan of what to do with the waste once this area was closed," Abdelsater-Abusamra said.

"It’s a flagrant, unacceptable lack of any sense of responsibility. If these people worked at a company, it would fire them and sue them for damages," Abdelsater-Abusamra pointed out.

However, she added that the Lebanese authorities are not alone in mismanagement of public services such as waste management.

Global issue

Not just in Lebanon but also in other places around the world, governments are failing to provide adequate solutions to deal with garbage. They are also failing to prevent corruption within the system that can lead to the dumping of household and toxic waste.

For example, in Dhaka in Bangladesh, garbage is a major problem. It lines the streets outside of houses, parks and even hospitals and schools. The municipal waste management service has capacity to collect just 60 percent of the trash.

With the landfills also quickly filling up, the rest is left behind, said Rashadul Hasan, project manager at Swisscontact, an organization working to introduce recycling in the region.

Policymakers have failed to introduce new systems of recycling to cut down waste, Hasan told Deutsche Welle. "The tax they are getting from houses is not enough, and they are not increasing collection," he said.

People sorting recyclables by hand in Bangladesh

Existing recycling programs in Bangladesh are not keeping enough rubbish off the streets

"They are operating on a British-era system that runs on primitive waste management [practices] and rules and regulations," Hasan added.

As well as releasing pollutants and creating a damaging environment for those living in the city, Hasan said that much waste has also been left in drainage systems, preventing effective drainage and creating a risk of flooding. This also has a negative impact on the environment.

'Prone to corruption'

But it’s not simply an issue of mismanagement that leads to street pollution. Corruption is particularly an issue within waste management. A European Commission report published last year on the fight against corruption said that public services - particularly construction and waste management - were "among the sectors most prone to corruption at local level."

In Naples, Italy, connections between the mafia and trash disposal are well documented. Waste management contracts handed to companies run by the local mafia, the Camorra, have led to widespread illegal dumping in the area - not just of domestic waste, but also toxic and industrial waste. This region has come to be known as the "Triangle of Death," with waste-related pollution linked to higher cancer rates compared to other similar regions.

A man transporting goods in a cart past a pile of uncollected rubbish in a street in Naples, Italy (Photo: EPA/CESARE ABBATE)

Mafia control over parts of the waste disposal system around Naples exacerbates the problem of illegal dumping

"There's no transparency," said Abdelsater-Abusamra in reference to the situation in Lebanon. She said this is why her group is promoting an access to information law. "Then it would be more difficult for anyone to work under the table," she said.

Sorting at source

While transparency laws could help with the issue of corruption and insure that legitimate companies are covering waste disposal, one of the biggest issues with regard to dumped waste comes back to a lack of recycling. With better processes in place, there would not be so much overall garbage that ends up on the streets.

Pilot projects run by both Arc en Ciel and Swisscontact in Lebanon and Bangladesh, respectively, are working to show the governments the benefits of sorting rubbish at the source, including composting organic material and recycling nonorganic waste. And this represents a solution that could be rolled out in the short term, said Beirut-based Maamari.

"Sustainable waste management is feasible in Lebanon," she said. "If they start now and are well-advised - and install infrastructure for sorting at source and composting and creating incentives for he population - this could be a huge part of the solution."

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