Text and Photos by Nathalie Rosa Bucher
While her colleagues across the country share many of her challenges, Nicole Gemayel, mayor of Bikfaya-Mhaiydseh, has had the determination to come up with more than short-term solutions and is pragmatic enough to know that behavior change, the core challenge, requires much patience, eloquence, following-up and ingenuity.
The genesis of Bi Clean, Bikfaya’s integrated waste management solution lies in the 2015 garbage crisis when garbage drop off points turned into stinking mountains and trash lined the roads. “Bi Clean was a direct response to the garbage crisis last summer,” Gemayel explained “and sorting was the solution to the problem, as it reduces waste by 80%. Since then, we ask households to divide their waste into three different bags (black bags for organic matter, white-solid waste, blue-plastic and recyclables), which means that the first sorting occurs at household level. A second sorting took place on an open field before we set up a dedicated center in partnership with Arc en Ciel. When people realized that the solution was effective, they stopped dumping.”
Garbage from the two municipalities of Bikfaya-Mhaiydseh and also Sakiet el-Misk and Bhersaf, which consist of four villages and 10,000 inhabitants (up to 12,000 in summer), is collected three times a week directly from households by municipal workers. Poorly sorted bags are marked with a red warning sticker.
“This garbage is then taken to Bi Clean and sorted to send recyclable matters to recycling companies, organic waste to farms in the area and only about 20% of all waste collected is sent to the landfill,” Gemayel outlined.
“The most challenging step was communication; to convince people of changing behavior,” the mayor remembered. “The crisis helped us. When you live in the garbage sorting is a solution!”
Asked how to set up an integrated waste management solution, Gemayel was unequivocal that it required the willingness to dig in. “I spent between six and seven months in the bins, going through rubbish last year! I have no background in waste management, my background is home management, but managing the village is like managing a house, paying attention to details. I got involved to lead as an example to my constituency but also my team that this had to be tackled and managed.”
“It also took a lot of determination and ingenuity. We received a conveyor belt that was not really suited for our purposes as it was a road works conveyor belt but we redesigned it, though none of us had an engineering background! You have to do with what you have, never wait for anything or anybody,” she advised colleagues across the country facing similar challenges.
A few minutes’ drive away from the municipality offices, Bi Clean was set up in 2015. Visitors are greeted by the logo made out of recyclable materials. Inside the hangar, on the left, the garbage is dropped off, put on the conveyor belt and then sorted by categories by six workers who stand on a platform. There is no bad smell in the air.
“All in all, 70% comes sorted as it should,” explained Elie Madi, in charge of Bi Clean, adding that a growing number of private individuals from other villages had started to drop off their recycling. “From up there,” he continued, pointing at the platform” it goes into bags for: different types of plastic (water bottles get separated from shampoo bottles, for example), glass, cardboard, metal and plastic bags. Carton and paper are separated and then what has been sorted during this stage, gets pressed into bales,” he said, pointing at colorful bales of squashed drinking cans, green soft drink bottles or see through plastic bottles.
Though only 15% of the operation’s costs are redeemed from the reselling of recyclables, each material has its value. Aluminum, for example, is worth a bit more than other materials; glass is sorted by color due to each color fetching a different price.
“We process six to seven tons per day and about 40-50 tons per week,” Madi expanded. “We are now at double the amounts from when we started in March 2015. “The price is fixed per ton, which is why only large operations are lucrative. We resell some materials per bag.”
“The recyclables get resold in Lebanon and we also collect plastic bottle caps, which are valuable. There is a market,” Jalkh added.
“Of the 18 pick ups that come in on collection, eight to 10 contain organic waste. The garbage chart reads as follows: about 50% organic, 10% carton (goes up in summer), 10% all plastics, 5% aluminum, glass 5% and 20% waste like diapers, hygienic waste.”
“Organic waste needs to be processed quickly and then goes to pig farmers in the area. We are also busy making compost and feed some to our chicken,” Jalkh added, proudly pointing to a coup containing about 20 clucking chicken.
“If we were to add biogas, we could go to zero waste,” Madi pointed out. “All know it and nobody wants to push it through.” According to Madi, the price Sukleen used to receive from the municipality per ton amounted to $170. “We never knew how much Sukleen really received – the amount was deducted automatically. Based on our calculations, the cost per ton is $70.” Up to date, the municipality is not receiving the funds the government should disburse.
“Sukleen was getting paid for collecting and sorting but dumped all the garbage on the landfill in Naame without sorting so that a landfill that was meant to last for 30 years was filled in 16! Nothing was recycled in those years and companies that had rightfully expected to receive cardboard and other recyclable materials from Sukleen got nothing. They didn’t do their job and have harmed us all,” Gemayel put forward.
“We had to buy machines, the process is labor expensive – we currently have 18 workers and two municipal workers at Bi Clean – and what costs us the most, namely half the budget, is renting trucks for the garbage collection,” she said. “We’re looking into setting up recycling drop-off stations to reduce our collecting costs.”
Gemayel purposefully includes the macro level in her campaigns. “We certainly have a problem at the level of consumption,” she conceded. “There is no awareness towards the environment.” In response, the municipality is soon introducing paper bags and special carry bags to replace plastic bags.
“When we asked people to start sorting the response was positive even though people didn’t quite know how it worked. We’ve been sending out pamphlets, hosting talks in partnership with Arc en Ciel. It is very important to repeat messages.”
“We have changed indeed, many have changed, it also goes for eating habits, to eat what you will eat and not leave half a table of untouched food,” Gemayel said, looking back. “In 2015, the Christmas tree at the famous Bikfaya Christmas market was made out of recyclable matters. Our schools have embraced the environmental ethos and done plenty of school projects inspired by green solutions, scout groups and learners visit the Bi Clean hangar frequently.”
“We’ve had a lot of interest from other municipalities and received around 100 already who would like to do the same,” Gemayel pointed out. “I try to encourage them.”
“It will take time and it’s not a good idea to impose things from one day to the next,” Gemayel added confidently.
Source : WE Magazine issue #15