21 Sep 2018
Beirut, Lebanon
Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Waste Management

In 2015, Lebanon landed itself in hot water when government waste management systems spectacularly broke down, allowing untenable amounts of trash to pile up in the streets for years. The garbage crisis has started easing thanks to the efforts of organizations like Compost Baladi, a waste management company based in Beirut. General manager Marc Aoun and his business partner, Antoine Abou Moussa, help clients of all scales to devise appropriate, sustainable practices for handling trash responsibly.

Compost Baladi has enjoyed immediate success since its establishment in early 2017, securing contracts with local municipalities, designing several new composting products and generating strong grassroots interest in the local community. Now Aoun wants to ensure that eco-friendly waste disposal stands the test of time in Lebanon, rather than becoming a flash in the pan.

This year, Lebanese waste management company Compost Baladi is helping a salmon processing factory to realize any accountant’s dream — turning a liability into an asset. The factory generates mountains of food waste that contain valuable nutrients. This led Aoun to suggest converting yesterday’s waste into tomorrow’s fish feed. “Our plan is to recover the nutrients before they run back into the environment,” he says.

The shrewd conservation of natural resources has become crucial in Lebanon, a country still reeling from a protracted garbage crisis that made world headlines. In 2015, the government closed an enormous landfill facility without providing an effective backup plan. Uncollected trash began piling up in the streets almost immediately, while the open burning of waste spiked by 330% before the year’s end.

Unregulated garbage incineration adds to greenhouse gas levels by emitting carbon, while other airborne pollutants from trash cause lung and cardiac illnesses. A 2017 Human Rights Watch report specifically decried the impact of burning garbage on community health in Lebanon.

Since early 2017, Compost Baladi has offered consultancy services on managing waste to a broad cross-section of Lebanese society — from individual homeowners to municipal councils to private companies, large and small. Compost Baladi tailors its solutions to the specific circumstances of each client, adhering to what Aoun describes as a “low tech, low cost and local approach.” This means that the customer must be able to understand, operate and afford its new waste disposal system, lest the process become unsustainable over time.

Aoun says that Compost Baladi is contacted by more and more local citizens, spooked by the recent garbage debacle into finding a more sustainable, less odorous future. While this augurs well for Compost Baladi — the business is already on track for profitability this year — Aoun warns that engrained social attitudes may still threaten progress. “While we expect the sector to grow, given the history of this country, there’s always a chance that [interest] might plateau after the garbage crisis has eased off.”

From backyards to city halls:

Together with Abou Moussa, Aoun conceived the idea for Compost Baladi at the height of Lebanon’s trash impasse. The company started out by working with concerned individuals and residential communities, providing them with small-scale units for backyard composting. “This got things moving, but our ultimate goal was always to get involved with municipalities,” recalls Aoun.

Since then, Compost Baladi has worked with three separate local councils to conceive a waste management plan that they can operate independently. This self-sufficiency is crucial, given the past failure of well-intentioned but ultimately unsustainable projects. In Aoun’s view, developing countries like Lebanon need garbage disposal systems that fit the community’s human and financial resources. Any plan will eventually fail if a municipality does not have the required technical expertise to maintain it, or relies on continued funding from development organizations.

To this end, Compost Baladi has built self-sufficient open pile waste disposal units for its government clients, which cut down the cost of managing waste and reduce environmental damage. Aoun and his team can then act as monitoring agents for several years to ensure that the scheme continues operating effectively.

Servicing another key sector, large and small businesses, has required some creative thinking from Compost Baladi. “These types of clients — like shopping malls, for example — are often based in urban areas, and often have little space,” Aoun says, “so we need to find an onsite solution.” Compost Baladi has helped invent Cube Collect, a bin that allows clients to begin the composting process in a confined area.

Aoun explains that Cube Collect makes his own business more profitable by reducing the water content of organic waste, which would otherwise develop a stench. Cube Collect holds the waste in “an odor-controlled way,” reducing the need for frequent, and therefore costly, trash collections.

A mixed market:

Compost Baladi is now covering its own costs, and its future looks bright amid a growing market for waste management services in Lebanon. In years gone by, the government relied on a few large-scale contracts to deal with the issue. The garbage crisis shook up the situation, with more municipalities and businesses now engaging contractors to handle waste.

Aoun perceives a commercial opening outside this “fairly competitive” market — small-scale customers. “The competition for individual clients is little to non-existent, because composting is not incentivized by the government,” Aoun says.

Compost Baladi is already catering directly to smaller-scale customers, modifying Cube Collect to produce Earth Cube for residential communities and the even smaller Earth Drum for individual homeowners. These new offerings take into account feedback from Compost Baladi’s earliest composting units, which did not always suit the tight confines of Lebanon’s densely populated cities.

For Aoun, this grassroots interest in composting points to changing attitudes in Lebanese society about handling waste. “Some people really, really want to take action,” he says. “I can tell you that from the number of phone calls that we have received.”

The challenge will be ensuring that key decision-makers encourage this new eco-friendly outlook, rather than taking it for granted. Apathy and poor planning mired Lebanon in mountains of garbage. If left unchecked, the same factors could lead to history repeating.


Learn more about Compost Baladi through its website and Facebook.

Photos courtesy of Compost Baladi

Since getting his MA in Middle Eastern Studies last year, David has worked as a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana, and Cairo, Egypt.David Wood
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