Lebanese youth spread environmental sustainability as their country is flooded with trash
Filthy smells permeate the air as mountains of trash pile up on the pavements of residential streets. Lebanon, once known for forests of cedar trees, has been flooded with trash since July 2015. Although the trash crisis has disastrous consequences for the environment and residents’ health, the crisis remains unsolved due to the absence of long term planning, sectarianism, and political favoritism.
Youth responded with mass protests calling for change, and a small group organized to take matters into their own hands. Ganatch was formed in August 2015 to raise public awareness about ways to deal with the trash crisis. Ganatch means green in Armenian, and the group aims to make households greener by teaching them to sort and recycle their solid wastes.
“The intention that Ganatch started with is simple,” said Varant Kurkjian, one of Ganatch’s co-founders. “We just wanted to recycle when the crisis hit in 2015, but there was no one knocking at our door to take it. So we did it ourselves.”
Ganatch collaborated with various institutions and families located nearby. Starting out small, the NGO asked families to separate their recyclables a week in advance, and with the help of “L’Ecoute,” another NGO, Ganatch was able to collect 150 kilograms of recyclables within the first week of work.
“We simply hire a truck from two collectors and use it to collect recyclables from households every week and send it to collectors' facilities where it is sorted and set for sale,” Kurkjian explained.
Ganatch encourages active citizenship that the founders believe starts with education and commitment. They particularly believe that a small group of people can have a large impact.
“In the first six months of collection and with a group of four people, we educated 60 households in sorting and recycling, and collected 8.8 tons of solid wastes, equivalent to the volume of 24 three ton trucks,” according to the Ganatch website.
In this period of time, Ganatch reduced CO2 emissions by 18 metric tons, which is equivalent to removing four cars off the road over the course of one year. And after surveying those 60 households, the team found out that 78 percent started sorting and recycling for the first time with Ganatch, even though 97 percent of them had never recycled before the waste crisis in 2015.
“All of these households can't imagine going back to stop sorting and recycling,” Kurkjian said. “This shift in mentality is our most essential milestone and the impact we plan to spread.”
Kurkjian noted that the main challenge was apathy among Lebanese citizens. He believes that citizens need to give each other a small push to care for things other than themselves, which will create a contagious positive impact to start recycling or to volunteer for the cause. Despite these challenges, Kurkjian considers the government's failures and consequent crises as opportunities to effect change.
“The gloomier it gets, the more optimistic we should be,” he asserted.
Lebanon is still considered to be a country that lacks adequate and well-operated infrastructure for waste management and disposal. In 1994, the government outsourced waste management to the private firm “Sukleen” which continued to collect and manage garbage by sorting, composting, recycling, and landfilling until the expiry of its contract on July 17, 2015. Concurrently, the Naameh landfill — located towards the South of Lebanon — was long overdue for closure as it had been receiving waste since 1997.
In response to the government’s failure, a series of small but increasing protests, led by grassroots organization "You Stink," were held throughout the summer, culminating in large protests in August. This civic movement aimed to pressure the government to take care of the solid waste accumulation and prevent them from using this crisis to serve the leaders’ political interests.
“I’m constantly living in fear because the garbage crisis will keep hurting us if the government doesn’t come up with a sustainable waste management strategy,” said Myriam Mansour, a Lebanese student who participated in the protests. “Changing the political system is our first goal. We should get educated about the matter in order to react wisely, create pressure groups and find an alternative solution,” she added, noting that Lebanese youth should lead the way for change.
“Our role is to be proactive; we can educate ourselves on recycling for example, even if the system doesn’t aid us,” said Hassan Makki, who participated in the protests because he believes the pollution has reached a dangerous level. He also mentioned that many realistic solutions to the crisis were proposed by qualified environmental experts, but were opposed by the government.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, sustainability is important to ensure that we have and will continue to have the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment.
According to a study by the University of Alask Fairbanks, “recycling helps to preserve the resources available to society and to reduce the impact of processing these resources on our planet.” The study also demonstrated that human health improves when recycling is enforced because there are fewer air pollutants and cleaner water.
Kurkjian describes Ganatch’s mission through the acronym CARE. It establishes a Community of volunteers, inspires people to become Active citizens, promotes social Responsibility, and creates Employment opportunities to alleviate poverty and empower people with special needs.
“The environment will go through disasters and eventually heal itself,” Kurkjian said. “Governments will come and go. We will come and go. The only intangible thing that will be passed on is our way of thinking.”
Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV