I was recently interviewed by Le Commerce du Levant for a big dossier on the Lebanese waste crisis that they featured in their April issue: “Waste Crisis: Symbol of the State’s Deliquescence.” (Personally, I didn’t know that word. De-li-ques-cen-ce: Google says it’s a Chemistry word that means “the process of melting away”, which, I say, sincerely shows you the high level of the article’s intellect… cuz when was the last time you used that word? Exactly. Me too.)
I have translated two generous segments from the dossier that I thought were quite interesting. Have a look here below. But if you understand French and want to know more about the waste crisis, pick up their issue at your local store, or purchase an electronic version of the entire dossier off of their website, it is an enlightening read. The journalist, Sahar Al-attar, diligently covers the history of the crisis, the fiasco of the export deal, and objectively evaluates the different claims of “solutions”, and that’s where I mostly weigh in. I think it’s one of the better reports on the crisis that are out there.
Worse comes to worst, at the very least, you will learn a few new words and impress people with them. The other day my 1-year-old nephew (featured in the video herein) told me that he felt “my manners were deliquescing.” I was shocked, but then not so much, he learned that word from the report.
Anyway. I have my own article coming up next week with my synthesis on the whole crisis, with viable solutions. So please stay tuned.
Until then, I leave you with my little Oscar-winning marketing video here below. Watch it. It’s winning awards. Then, you can read the translated articles below (where I am CITED SO MANY TIMES).
Cheers to you and yours, and love.
Landfills, Recycling, Incineration… Choices Left to be Defined
by Sahar al-Attar
The government has given itself four years to develop a sustainable waste management system. Two options in particular are mentioned: sorting at source, and waste-to-energy.
Sorting, recycling, composting, incineration? The choice for the treatment of waste should be dictated by environmental and societal criteria, as well as economic criteria, especially in a heavily indebted country like Lebanon. The viability of different options depends on many factors such as the volume and nature of waste, the collection method, the institutional and regulatory framework, the cost of treatment, and the importance of the land factor. “The Lebanese government has never seriously assessed the costs and benefits of each option, nor did it even engage in establishing a typology of the waste that should otherwise direct its global policy”, says an expert on the subject. By default, the country has hitherto relied, almost exclusively, on landfills. This solution has the advantage of being the least expensive one; it also isn’t the most polluting one as long as the landfills are sanitary and well controlled, which was the case, up until now, of the Naameh landfill only. Lebanon otherwise has over some 700 uncontrolled open dumps scattered across the country. When international standards are applied, “the groundwater is protected from any leachate infiltration (liquid fraction of waste), and the methane emissions does pose a danger to human health”, explained Sherif Arif, former environmental advisor to the World Bank in Lebanon and MENA region, in a previous September issue of Le Commerce du Levant. These methane fumes from the landfill can wind up being used to generate electricity, as is the case in Naameh.
DISADVANTAGES OF LANDFILLING
The dumps and landfills, even the sanitary ones, are poorly perceived by the local population. Landfills tend to devalue the price of the surrounding land by 15 to 25% according to estimations. This becomes a particularly acute problem in a country where land rent is one the main sources of enrichment. For Pierre Issa, co-founder and former Director General of the Arcenciel association, the Lebanese sociocultural context, characterized by strong sectarian dimensions, does not favor a solution based on landfills because it strengthens the “NIMBY” effect i.e. “Not In My Backyard”. This acronym NIMBY is used to describe the objection to the siting of something perceived as unpleasant or hazardous in one’s own neighbourhood, where people living close-by consider that they will suffer the most. This is a usage that mostly serves the interests of beneficiaries of ground rent only.
The small size of Lebanon is also considered to be a natural limitation for the massive use of landfill, which is the way the country has managed waste so far. “A landfill will sooner or later become saturated. It is irresponsible to think that we can replicate this model to infinity, unless we seek to turn Lebanon into a giant garbage dump,” says Sara El-Yafi, public policy and waste-to-energy expert. “Not to mention the existing seismic hazards that exist in the region. In case of an earthquake, the risks of infiltration are real,” she said. This is particularly true for the case of the projects of transforming old quarries into landfills, says Edgar Chehab, from the Office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Beirut. “There is only one old quarry that sits at an altitude that is less than 400 meters, and which could meet Lebanese constraints in seismic matter; it is the one of Jiyeh.”
“Despite its drawbacks, the landfill is unavoidable downstream of the waste treatment chain, explains Sara El-Yafi, but the challenge for governments is to restrict its use, and avoid landfilling municipal solid waste (MSW) by making sure that the waste containing any sort of value gets re-used somehow, be it through recycling or upcycling through a specific W2E technology.”
For many environmental groups in Lebanon, the solution is to encourage the recycling of materials like paper, cardboard, plastic, glass or metal, and the composting of organic materials, which account for more than half of Lebanon’s waste. “With a maximum recycling and composting, landfilled waste would be reduced to 10%, against nearly 80% today,” says Olivia Maamari, from the Arcenciel association. However, to significantly increase the rate of recycling and the composting, which are currently only 8% and 15% according to estimates, Lebanon must adopt a system that calls for sorting at the source.
THE CHALLENGES OF SORTING AT THE SOURCE
Citizens must separate waste upstream according to their type to prevent their being soiled by each other. Only “clean” elements that can be sold to recycling channels, or used to produce compost to be utilized in agriculture, must be extracted. In its latest plan, the government cites “sorting at the source” or “source separation” as one of the pillars of the future management strategy that the government promised to deliver within four years. “The crisis has already helped raise public awareness on the issue of waste, it is in the state’s interest to continue in this direction by investing at least one dollar per capita per year on awareness campaigns, as is the case in Europe”, argues Olivia Maamari. International experience shows that the development of this practice is a long process, requiring educational effort on all of society, which most often begins in school. During the crisis, some municipalities have adopted this approach, notably thanks to a door to door collection. However, sorting remains minimal between inorganic and organic waste. Without an effective sorting at source, “the production of compost or recycling remains much more expensive than landfilling because it requires high-performing secondary sorting centers,” says Sherif Arif. “The price paid by communities is also weighed down by the need to transport all the waste without any compacting in order for them to benefit from a resale”, states Sara El-Yafi. Without compaction, transport costs, which can represent up to 60% of the chain, get multiplied by three. Hence, the need to reduce the distance between the place of collection and the place where sorting and composting take place must be upheld, but this also means that waste treatment sites get multiplied.
DECENTRALIZATION OF THE WASTE MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
This principle of decentralization was at the heart of the master plan for waste management adopted by the government in 2006. It provided for the division of Lebanon into four areas (Beirut/Mount Lebanon, North, South, and Bekaa) with the creation of two sanitary landfills, and two to four sorting and composting plants in each zone. A study published by the World Bank in 2011 had estimated the cost of the plan’s implementation (in its optimal version, meaning with 8 landfills and 26 treatment centers) to be $400 million USD invested over a period of 20 years, with $18 million operational costs per year. To break even, i.e. to recover the cost of investment and maintenance, the waste company would need to charge approximately $34 per ton of treated waste (excluding costs of sweeping, collection and transport), and approximately $31 if one large landfill was adopted for Beirut and Mount Lebanon instead of two.
According to several experts, this system is particularly suited for rural areas and small towns, where the density of the population calls for an increase in treatment centers and landfills, and facilitates outreach efforts for sorting at the source. Its implementation may however be much less effective in the large agglomerations of Lebanon, where a door to door collection to empower households, for instance, is difficult to implement and where consumer habits are different.
For Sara El-Yafi, a system based solely on recycling and composting is “outdated.” “Whatever level of sorting at the source we may adopt as a community, the truth remains that recycling has become limited in our consumer society, because the products in our households have become increasingly mixed. Except for glass and metals, and to a lesser extent cardboard and paper, few materials are truly profitable to recycle, let alone ethically responsible in a country like ours where child labor is active on the front of collection activities, and where there is no state support. Even in the United States, only 14% of plastic is recycled, the rest ends up in landfills or incinerators in China”, says Sara El-Yafi. As for composting, she says, “it will always be more irregular and of lower quality than chemical fertilizers, making it consistently unappealing to farmers as we have seen in other countries. Compost is of high quality when it is produced from tree leaves, or plants, or from a single-source material, such as vegetable markets or a tomato sauce factory, for example. But composting cannot be a solution for all organic household waste, which include meat, dairy products, oils, etc at very uneven ratios. The compost will simply be irregular, and of bad quality. Not to mention the fact that nobody wants to live next to a composting plant because of the unpleasant odors and swarms of insects it attracts.” For this expert, Sara El-Yafi, the future, especially for large cities, belongs to another form of waste treatment, that of “energy recovery” through the technology called “Waste to Energy”.
Waste-to-Energy is an option that was considered by the Lebanese authorities in their latest plan as one of the pillars of the future sustainable solution. This option has been on the table since 2010. The government at the time had instructed the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) to amend the 2006 plan (which had not been implemented in the meantime) to include waste-to-energy in major cities, and offer different scenarios by region.
The waste-to-energy has the advantage of minimizing landfill usage while producing electricity from a renewable source. According to the Ministry of Environment, as cited in the World Bank study, the 2006 plan would have been able to lower the amount of landfilled waste by 50%, while waste-to-energy technologies would divide it by 30 (i.e. almost reduce it by 96%). However, the cost of this solution is, however, significantly higher.
There are various technologies of “Waste to Energy” (see Le Commerce du Levant, May 2015 issue), such as anaerobic digestion, gasification (refer to the next page), pyrolysis, RDF (Refuse-Derived Fuel, i.e. fuel derived from waste after it has been treated), but the most widespread, and perhaps the most contested, is incineration. This process was clearly favored by the government in 2010. It seems to still be today, even if the authorities show no transparency about it, out of fear of antagonizing the public opinion. And for good reason: “The burning of waste gives off highly toxic fumes consisting of toxic chemical compounds, such as dioxins, which can be far more dangerous to our health than all the open dumps that have polluted the Lebanese air in recent months, if they are not properly filtered and treated”, warns Sara El-Yafi. The maintenance of filters is very costly to the plant operator. “This technology is often deployed in countries where environmental standards are extremely strict, such as Japan and some European countries, where the technology and gas cleaning is subsidized and very tightly controlled”, Sara El-Yafi continues. Lebanese officials often cite the example of the incinerators in Vienna or Amsterdam. “The latter is the most advanced in the world,” says Sara El-Yafi. “But in this Amsterdam plant, when a filter breaks down, it is repaired on the spot. But if that happened in Lebanon, it’s a safe bet that filters will never be changed. And the damage that shall ensue from that is colossal.”
THE COSTS OF INCINERATION
Beyond the public health issue, quality incinerators have the disadvantage of being expensive. Based on the specifications of the incinerator in Amsterdam (which Sara El-Yafi says is the most efficient in the entire world), the World Bank estimated that the investment needed for a similar project in Greater Beirut, with a capacity of 900,000 tonnes per year, would cost $885 million USD, with an additional operational cost of an annual $39 million USD.
Over a period of 20 years, this would represent a cost of treatment of $95 per tonne of waste. Four incinerators for the whole country would climb the total investment to over $ 1.8 billion, and maintenance costs would climb to $102 million dollars a year.
The Danish Consulting firm Ramboll, commissioned in 2012 by CDR to evaluate the feasibility of this option and prepare in stride the specifications, had resulted in different figures. Although Ramboll’s study (which the government paid $850,000 USD for) has not been published, Le Commerce du Levant was able to obtain a copy. This study estimates an investment of $500 million USD as a necessary investment for an incinerator with a capacity of 750,000 tonnes per year (more than $100 million less than the World Bank estimation in the same capacity). To amortize this investment and its operational costs, the plant operator must charge between $55 and $70 dollars per tonne for the treatment of waste, considering that the plant is funded by the state or the private sector. This relatively low price is explained by the revenues generated from the energy production, estimated at about $ 50 per tonne. The study indeed states that a ton of incinerated waste can produce 500 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, which would then be sold to Electricité du Liban (EDL) at a price of 10 cents / kWh. This rate is presented as being below the production cost of EDL, which makes the model more interesting for the state. But for incineration to be effective, the calorific value of waste must be at least 8 megajoules per kilogram, while in Lebanon it is estimated to be 7.5 MJ / kg on average due to the high presence of organic matter (wet food) in our waste stream. The study therefore recommends removing at least 15% organic matter (whose calorific value is low) and compost it, while stressing the need to keep all other materials inside the waste, especially plastics.
The study considered several scenarios (one, two, or three incinerators) recommending to build two in the future: one to serve the major cities of the North, as well as the northern part of Greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon, and the other, for the southern regions. Both will be accompanied by four sorting centers, four composting platforms, and two landfills, with the parallel implementation of the 2006 plan for the Bekaa. However, Ramboll proposes to the Lebanese state to begin with a single incinerator for the area of Beirut and Mount Lebanon with a capacity of 750,000 tons per year, and to use the already existing processing infrastructure (Amroussié, Quarantine, Coral, Naameh, and Bsalim) to avoid replicating the process. This recommendation seems to have been taken into account, since the CDR launched in February a pre-qualification procedure that seeks to award a contract to a company that shall uphold the design, construction and management of a waste-to-energy plant with a capacity of 2,000 tonnes per day, i.e. an annual capacity almost identical to that proposed by Ramboll (and that surely is an incinerator). Solicited by Le Commerce du Levant, the CDR declined to comment about this topic. Two interviewed officials have stated that the technology type and the method of financing had not yet been decided, while other sources have confirmed that it was indeed going to be an incinerator. This is certainly the most likely hypothesis we deduce upon reading the pre-qualification terms, which Le Commerce du Levant has obtained a copy of.
AN INCOHERENT POLICY?
This project raises questions about the overall coherence of the policy envisaged by the government. Why commit to an expensive policy of sorting at source if the recyclable materials are expected to end up in an incinerator, whose construction would take about three years? How can an incinerator with such a large capacity (the incinerator in Amsterdam, the largest in Europe, takes 1,600 tonnes per day) be adequately “fed” if a growing number of municipalities in Mount Lebanon meanwhile are seeking to adopt an approach based on heavy recycling? What will happen to the sorting facilities and landfills that are included in the emergency plan? “In terms of waste management, there is no miracle solution,” summarizes an expert. “There is a range of solutions that can be combined and integrated together. The key is to properly size the projects according to local specifications, and especially to define priorities at the state level.”
In 2011 already, the World Bank estimated that the solution of “Waste-to-Energy” could be considered for the region of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, but at a high cost. Adopting this solution for the entire country would be inconsistent with the investments already made in sorting facilities, recycling and composting in other Lebanese regions. “When a government devises a strategy, it is supposed to optimize the allocation of public resources, and therefore should not invest in contradictory projects,” protested an international expert who requested anonymity. “Lebanon now has a significant number of treatment centers, notably those funded by the European Union programs. The State would have good interest in making use of this capacity instead of investing twice in different operations to treat the same waste. Why are the additional investments that are planned for the incinerator not allocated to other needy sectors such as water or electricity?”, he asks.
To settle the debate about the different waste treatment methods, the government cannot be stingy with a strategic reflection on the challenges of this sector, and should share it with the public. Is our priority to reduce landfill usage given the importance of our land constraints? Or is it to aim for maximum recovery of waste, even that the bill gets higher? Is the financial constraint strong or is Lebanon prepared to develop projects with pioneering technologies, knowing that if it is incineration, it would pay an extremely high price per ton for an efficiency that is extremely low? And if the government opts for advanced technologies, how will it ensure the effectiveness of health and environmental controls in a country where international environmental and public health standards are rarely applied? It will not be possible to speak of “sustainable waste management” as long as the public authorities do not provide clear answers to these questions.
The Option(s) of Gasification
While the CDR is working on a project of incineration for which it has called for pre-qualification, other Waste-to-Energy technologies are being studied.
The nature of the Waste-to-Energy technology envisaged by the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) is unknown to this date. The CDR has refused to communicate about the subject. Several experts have confirmed to Le Commerce du Levant that the technology they wish to adopt is incineration, and the list of pre-qualifications launched earlier this year confirms that. A minister has however evoked a cleaner technology, but much more expensive: plasma gasification. The capacity indicated on the CDR Site (2,000 tonnes per day), however, tends to confirm the first option (incineration) to be the actual one pursued, unless the Lebanese state has reached delusions of grandeur. The most modern and recent plasma gasification plant, which is built in Britain, has a capacity of less than 1,000 tonnes per day, and it costs a whopping $ 500 million USD! If Lebanon was planning to apply this technology using “2,000 tonnes of waste per day” as the CDR site states, this would mean that the state is willing to invest a billion dollars on this project … and that’s assuming such a technology is physically possible, which it is not apparently yet.
The process of gasification involves transforming waste into a synthesis gas by subjecting the waste material to very high temperatures in the presence of a small amounts of oxygen, without combustion. It generates up to 75% less fumes than conventional incineration, very low emissions of carbon dioxide, and no release of dioxins. Dioxin emissions by uncontrolled waste incinerators are highly toxic and can cause according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “problems in all reproductive health, developmental health, damage to the immune system, interference with the hormonal system, and can cause cancer. ” Plasma gasification plants do not present this risk, and the synthesis gas that they generate can be used in turbines to power electricity. But “this technology is especially suitable for treating industrial, medical or hazardous waste,” says Sara el-Yafi, public policy and Waste-to-Energy expert. “Using plasma gasification to treat household or municipal solid waste is akin to wanting to kill a fly with a rocket, and it is really expensive” she adds.
WHAT ABOUT RDF?
In an interview with L’Orient-Le Jour, the Minister responsible for the waste file, Akram Chehayeb, has meanwhile alluded to a third track: “For Greater Beirut and some coastal regions of Mount Lebanon, densely populated, we should employ the technique of the RDF (Refused derived fuel, or fuel from waste) which can be used as fuel in cement plants, for example. This is not incineration.”, he said.
RDF could be used to power energy-intensive technologies or industries, such as cement or power plants. But it can only be produced from waste with a high calorific value, i.e. after the organic waste has been taken out. Thus, this requires a high-performance pre-sorting operation, which is currently non-existent in Lebanon on a large scale. “It is essential that the RDF be of good quality, and it has to be available in sufficient quantities to feed the furnaces at a steady pace,” explained Jamil Bou Haroun, director of development of the cement supplier Holcim, last year to the Commerce du Levant. The production of RDF also presents a health risk if the process is not strictly controlled. RDF involves significant investments from manufacturers who wish to administer it.
“There are different Waste-to-Energy alternatives to incineration,” says Sara El-Yafi. “The problem is that the Lebanese officials only want to hear about projects that are already widely in use in other countries, and that are supposed to have already been proven. They do not understand that technology advances quickly in this domain, and that innovative projects administered on a pilot scale elsewhere could perfectly fit a small country like Lebanon,” Sara El-Yafi says.
ENERGY EFFICIENCY AND MODERN GASIFICATION
Sara El-Yafi, the expert, argues in favor of a particular technology, modern gasification, which she has already spoken about to several Lebanese officials, including the Prime Minister. “In the field of Waste-to-Energy, we must think in terms of efficiency, meaning comparing the ratio between the recovered energy and that which was expended to produce it, says the specialist Sara El-Yafi. The energy efficiency of coal plants, the highest, is 49%, that of natural gas is 40%, that of the incineration at best is 20%, while that of the plasma gasification is 23 %. There exist modern gasification plants, without plasma, that can reach 35%.”
According to Sara El-Yafi, a modern gasification plant with a capacity of 650 tonnes per day would produce 18 MW of electricity for an investment of $ 135 million, and operational costs of 6 to 12 million dollars per year over 25 years. Accompanied by a sorting center to remove the glass and metal and produce RDF, it would reduce the share of landfill waste down to 5%. Projects on this scale could be adapted to large cities such as Beirut, for example, which already produces 600 tonnes of waste per day, leaving the possibility of other forms of treatment elsewhere.