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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Establishing a No Fly Zone

Smart system for eliminating Lebanon’s garbage.

Ask the village folk of Chacra in south Lebanon how they established a no fly zone and they won’t tell you about putting aircraft prohibitions in place. Instead, they will tell you about using a smart, new system to get rid of their garbage.

By setting up a drumlike machine that can make compost from organic waste in a mere three days, Chacra has done away with the daily pall of smoke and odor from trash fires. The village has also successfully seen off the swarms of flies and mosquitoes that once besieged its residents.

Rural Lebanon faced serious environmental and health hazards from indiscriminate waste disposal after civil war engulfed the country from 1975 to 1990 – destroying much of the country’s infrastructure and economy. But with grants from CNEWA, as part of its postwar village revitalization program, these communities are rebuilding and, importantly, implementing solutions for managing household waste in ways that reduce disease.

Ziad Abichaker, a young Lebanese biochemical engineer, worked out the system that solved Chacra’s garbage problem while studying for his master’s degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Before coming to Chacra, Abichaker, 33, had already successfully installed the composting system in the north Lebanon villages of Kfar Sir and Douma. At these installations, he fine-tuned the drum rotation – how the garbage moves from one compartment to another and how a mixture of enzymes and bacteria ferment the organic matter, transforming it into rich compost.

Traditional composting takes 60 to 70 days and draws more flies than fans. What made composting the ideal solution for Chacra is that the village’s garbage is at least 80 percent organic. While in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only 21 percent of its waste is diverted for recycling and composting. The cost of treating garbage at the Chacra facility is only $29 per ton and not the $118 per ton charged by the national contractor who handles Lebanon’s solid municipal waste.

A short distance from Chacra, the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) sits on the edge of a plateau that for many years was the dumping ground for the town’s refuse. A few bloated black bags filled with “vintage” garbage still provide lunch for the small number of flies that buzz around wondering where their free meals have gone. Tin cans, old clothes and plastics add color but no beauty to the scene.

A wrecked tractor sits by the side of the road leading to the MRF. But both the trash and the tractor, although within feet of the entrance to the facility, are in “no go” areas. Land mines, left behind by the Israeli military when they withdrew from south Lebanon in May 2000, still lurk silently in the ground. One explosion killed the tractor’s driver.

But now that the people of Chacra are reasonably free from wartime worries, including the constant threat of Israeli raids on once-nearby Hezbollah guerrilla camps, their preoccupation with composting seems, by comparison, touchingly quaint.

One of the proudest days in the history of the village was when the Lebanese Minister of Industry, George Frem, along with Issam Bishara, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, and Raouf Youssef from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) officially opened the MRF.

“There are very few government services in Lebanon,” said Bishara. “Following the end of the civil war, much of the postwar rebuilding boom is concentrated in Beirut and the villages are left to sort out their own problems.

“To a large extent, aid from CNEWA and USAID is helping families return to their villages. By providing essential services like eliminating garbage dumps, we are creating an environment that will keep Lebanese people from migrating to the West.”

But while getting up close and personal with garbage may not be everyone’s idea of a proud moment, knowing what is in Chacra’s trash is the best way of understanding why the MRF is so successful.

Traditionally, rural villagers in Lebanon bought very few canned food items. Tuna, sardines and semni (shortening) were among the few items that came in tins. Laughing Cow cheese came in cardboard boxes, while Bon Jus fruit drinks were packaged in pyramid-shaped waxed containers. Quantities of this everyday debris were small enough to burn or bury.

Food shopping – a daily affair with a strong social aspect – would bring to homes an endless variety of vegetables and fruits wrapped only in paper or reusable cloth bags. Homemade fruit drinks such as tuut (mulberry juice) were more popular than imported canned beverages. Cleaning products in plastic containers existed, but homemade soap was the preferred remedy for dirt.

However, modern life did not take a detour past Chacra. With the end of armed conflict, many thousands of people who fled south Lebanon returned – and began to build.

Land became expensive and no one wanted to sell or donate land for use as a garbage dump. Sometimes the only direction left for expansion was toward the dump. And the returnees – especially those who had lived abroad – brought with them a consumerism that had a lot of appeal.

Lebanon’s environmentalist groups became vocal about the increasing garbage and its pitfalls. Garbage dumps were hardly ever an “in thing,” but with public awareness spots on TV and countrywide campaigns, the dumps soon became pariahs – not-in-my-backyard issues.

During the civil war, the Lebanese forgave their central government for neglecting the solid waste problem. It was dealt with as best it could be during the conflict. Valleys became favorite dumping spots, even rivers served to carry away garbage. Roadside dumping grounds, like the one in Chacra, were common.

Throughout the countryside handwritten signs are still nailed to posts. IT IS FORBIDDEN TO DUMP REFUSE HERE, they read in Arabic. The signs are often posted after the fact. The signs themselves now usually serve as a warning of the stench that is sure to hit as you are driving past.

Whatever tolerance there was for these make-do garbage dumps is now itself on the refuse pile and communities are demanding a stop to the escalating pollution crisis.

Some municipalities tried burning their collective refuse – a solution that produced more complaints than kudos from the citizens who had to close their doors and windows when the wind blew the wrong way.

In Beirut, a huge modern facility designed to burn garbage was so poorly maintained that air pollution exceeded all limits. Angry area residents burned down the plant.

When the people of Chacra considered their rapidly growing population (doubling to 20,000 in the summer), brainstorming sessions focused on one chronic problem, garbage, or in Arabic, nefaiyaat. The composting project was given the go-ahead after a feasibility study turned out smelling like roses.

CNEWA, with USAID funds, and the municipality of Chacra financed the project. CNEWA’s Beirut staff did the liaison work and on-site coordination.

The village donated the land for the facility – a total of 65,000 square feet – and it also paved the mile-long road leading from the village to the facility. Chacra also provided the water and fuel necessary to run the equipment, money for repairs and sawdust, which is essential for controlling the humidity generated by the decomposing garbage.

Today, the garbage collection service circulates through Chacra as it always did. Workers toss in trash bags followed by the odd chair, cans and plastic bottles, paper, old clothes and broken dishes. Then it travels down the road to the MRF, which the villagers call makhmar nefaiyaat, or the place where refuse is fermented, a reference to the action of the enzymes.

The under-one-roof facility has two rotary drums, each with a five-ton-per-day composting capacity, a segregation and processing area for recyclables and an inert materials landfill.

At the site, three workers from the village begin sorting the organic from the inorganic and recyclables from the articles that will be crushed or shredded. Items such as shoes and clothes are tossed on another pile. In an hour, each worker can sort through a half ton of garbage.

Some plastics, aluminum and paper are recycled in other parts of Lebanon. The remains of aluminum cans might find their way into the soles of shoes made at local factories. Other recyclables will go onto another life abroad. Turkey, for example, purchases iron.

The composting process is efficient and simple. The workers throw the organic garbage – food scraps, paper and cartons – into a trench where a huge horizontal screw-like device drags the waste into the rotary composting drums.

The trash-filled plastic bags go into the drum along with the organic waste and are put into the landfill at the end of the process so there is no need to empty the bags.

Inside the drum, composting enzymes and bacteria work their magic while air blown into the drum at intervals controls odor. In three days, when the cycle is finished, dark brown, good quality compost pours out.

This compost is then sieved and bagged into three different grades. The coarsest grade can cover rocky, barren ground, turning it into arable land. Medium and fine grades are used as soil builders and fertilizers. Fruits and vegetables grown in this soil are considered organic produce.

Using EPA standards, the compost is tested four times a month at the Core Environmental Laboratory at the American University of Beirut. Results have been impressive. Heavy metal levels are way below those allowed by the EPA and no salmonella has been detected.

The composting facilities in Chacra, Kfar Sir and Douma are currently the only ones running in Lebanon. However, by the end of the year, there will be a total of seven in operation with two more set for construction.

In Kfar Sir, 320,000 square feet of municipal land has been declared a natural reserve and the once-barren land, now covered with compost, is sprouting trees.

Providing rural villages with composting facilities is not the end of this “no fly” story.

The public needs to be educated about recycling as consumer goods increasingly appear in Lebanese TV commercials and then find their way from the grocer’s shelves to the housewife’s pantry and finally, what is leftover, into the garbage. The Lebanese Council for the Environment has recently received a European Community grant to develop public awareness.

There remains plenty of need for information, but ultimately the goal of dynamic composting is to make sure the only place for garbage is a no fly zone.

Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor to CNEWA WORLD.

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