Beirut mayor touts waste-to-energy plan
Plant construction project puts municipality at odds with local academics
BEIRUT: In a bid to solve Beirut’s waste management problem, the Municipality of Beirut has put forward a plan for the construction of a waste-to-energy plant: a facility designed to combust waste to produce electricity.
While this approach has been successful in Europe, the plan – spearheaded by Beirut Mayor Jamal Itani – has raised concerns within the academic community that mismanagement of the plant could lead to environmental and health hazards.
“Our solution for Beirut is not an incinerator,” Itani told The Daily Star. “Our solution is a holistic approach that starts from sorting material [at the source].”
Modern waste-to-energy plants differ from trash incinerators operated in the past in that they remove hazardous or recyclable waste before incineration. The Beirut Municipality issued a tender for waste collection last Thursday, aiming to establish the necessary infrastructure for waste separation.
Itani said the plan includes the placement of three different types of collection bins around the city and a media campaign to inform the community about how to separate waste.
“The sorted and unsorted material will be separated again within the plant. After [this] we will pretreat the remaining material to reduce the volume of garbage before going from waste to energy,” Itani said.
The municipality issued an expression of interest on March 1 to create a consortium of companies that would invest in the project.
Interested firms are expected to apply by May 2 for prequalification.
The plan’s second phase will include the drafting of the tender document prior to the launch of the plant’s construction. Selected to implement this phase is Danish company Ramboll, which designed Lebanon’s Zouk Mikael and Jiyyeh power plants.
Ramboll cannot be held accountable for the mismanagement of these power plants, which local communities denounce as highly polluting, but the launch of another potentially hazardous project has raised objections among the academic community.
“Operation costs are very high, especially for maintaining pollution control units,” Joseph Zeaiter, an American University of Beirut chemical engineering professor, told The Daily Star.
“We do not trust that the operations will be conducted according to European standards because there is no law, there is no infrastructure, and there is plenty of corruption.”
As part of the AUB Collaborative for the Study of Inhaled and Atmospheric Aerosols, which conducts research into air pollution, Zeaiter held a news conference in February to present scientific evidence against the adoption of waste incineration.
One of the research group’s main concerns is the dispersal into the atmosphere of “fly ash,” which contains toxic metals and small amounts of dioxins. In the absence of effective controls, harmful pollutants may enter the air, land and water, negatively impacting human health and the environment.
In Europe, fly ash is disposed of by means of landfills. Mayor Itani dismissed this approach for Lebanon, saying that the waste-to-energy plan aims to solve the problem of landfills rather than adding to it. “We have included in the tender that the contractor must take them [the ashes] outside the country, even if we have to pay a bit extra,” Itani said.
The Basel Convention – EU legislation regulating the transboundary movement of waste – limits the transportation of hazardous waste. Determining what is considered hazardous is a complicated matter and the feasibility of fly-ash shipments to the EU has been a point of contention between Beirut’s municipality and the academic community.
The extra cost of shipping hazardous material abroad has previously limited Lebanon’s capacity for waste disposal, as in the case of expired pharmaceuticals being stored in warehouses rather than shipped for disposal.
Itani said that all necessary risk assessments will be carried out by Ramboll, as well as by internationally recognized independent committees, and made available for public scrutiny. He also pledged to institute “five levels of control” over the plant’s operations, including an operator, a supervising consultant, an international consultant, a board of academics including representatives from the major Lebanese universities, and the Environment Ministry.
“I believe that with five different layers of control we will be able to control the [plant’s] operation for a long time,” Itani said. “I cannot sit idly by and wait for the government to find a solution. I would not be giving Beirut what it deserves.”
Itani stressed that the project is still being studied and that, should the studies highlight any problems, the project will be reconsidered. If everything proceeds as planned, the waste-to-energy plant is expected to be functional three years from now.
The United Nations Development Program renewed last month a memorandum of understanding with the Beirut Municipality to provide technical assistance in the implementation of the plan. “We are not advocating for one solution or another and we fully respect the position of the academic [community],” Luca Renda, UNDP country director, told The Daily Star, adding that “there is no perfect solution” to the problem of waste management in Lebanon.
Renda said the fact that similar plans have not been properly managed in the past does raise concerns, but that Beirut’s trash problem will inevitably resurface and waste-to-energy could be a viable solution, provided that a system of checks and balances is put in place.
“Our solution for Beirut is not an incinerator,” Itani told The Daily Star.