Scaling Out: Lebanon’s Civil Society Joins Forces to Tackle the Waste Crisis

Lebanese journalist Lara Bitar has spent years reporting on the dangers of toxic waste in Lebanon’s landfills. After she began to focus on the intersection of militias, government cover-ups, and toxic waste in early 2023, the government took notice. But rather than address the concerns she raised, the state’s anti-cybercrimes unit tried to force her to take her stories down. It was only after a broad public outcry that the state backed down from its demands.

Lebanon’s slow-growing environmental crisis has been a persistent consequence of the country’s political dysfunction. As an unprecedented economic collapse progresses amid political paralysis, Lebanon’s environment has come under increasing threat. At the same time, the political space for activists and civil society to draw attention to these issues is shrinking. Still, local civil society organizations are responding to these challenges and laying the groundwork for more sustainable waste management by sharing best practices, integrating and coordinating their activities, and scaling up their efforts.

One local initiative has Beirut motorists lining up at a drive-through counter to exchange recyclables for cash. An entrepreneur founded the “Drive Throw” recycling station in 2022 to encourage Lebanese citizens to recycle and has since opened a second station. By February 2023, the two stations had collected and sorted 450 tons of recyclables.

However, while “Drive Throw” recycling picked up considerable international media attention, its customers are typically a wealthy and environmentally conscious minority. This limitation reflects a broader challenge for environmental civil society organizations. In the face of systemic shortfalls in service provision by the government, local initiatives do not match the scale of the problem.

Entrepreneurs in Lebanon are innovating to achieve results at scale. Beyond relatively simple waste sorting business like “Drive Throw” recycling, small and medium enterprises throughout the country have sprung up to address waste management in new ways. Some start-ups have turned their attention to the development or implementation of new technologies, such as integrating waste-to-energy systems into the paper recycling industry, developing steam sterilization machines to treat the surplus of medical waste from the Covid-19 pandemic, or implementing optical sorting technologies to improve recycling efficiency. In other cases, companies have found success by teaming up with local municipalities to implement new approaches to managing waste—in the case of the local start-up Compost Baladi, through low-cost composting.

Whether through low-tech initiatives or high-tech innovations, each of these approaches alone is unlikely to achieve the scale necessary to address the crisis. However, environmental actors in Lebanon are not working alone. Instead, environmental civil society is coming together in creative ways to support one another’s work, engage in creative learning processes, and build new networks of action. In 2018, the American University of Beirut implemented a project to reform the waste management practices of municipal governments surrounding the Naameh landfill. As part of the project, the university worked with citizen committees and local governments to produce a study on the environmental impact of waste, a community composting project, and a participatory educational project at a local school.

In the years since, civil society actors have continued this trend. A coalition of more than 60 NGOs held environmental consciousness-building conferences in 12 districts across Lebanon in 2022 alone. Environmental activists in Beirut are also meeting with social entrepreneurs in the private sector to brainstorm new approaches to the environmental situation in Lebanon. 

The crucial trend is not that environmental civil society groups are becoming more imaginative or more innovative—it is that they are becoming more integrated. The scale of the waste crisis and the absence of a long-term management strategy from the government means that no organization or solution can go it alone. But by increasing collaboration, these groups can learn faster and smarter, coordinate actions, and drive greater buy-in from different segments of the public.

A more unified, grassroots-led civil society brings results. Increased coordination among environmental civil society groups has led to successes not only with waste management, but also in other areas of environmental concern. After six years of growing demonstrations from civil society groups protesting the environmental impact of the Bisri Dam project, the World Bank agreed to freeze over $600 million in funding in 2020 and ultimately decided to cancel the project entirely over the Lebanese government’s inability to address the environmental concerns presented by civil society. It is no coincidence that the integration and expansion of Lebanon’s environmental civil society corresponded with an end to the World Bank’s support for the dam.

But recent history suggests that optimism about any broader spillover should be tempered. When the trash crisis came to a head in 2015, Lebanese civil society rose up to protest a worrisome trend of rising illnesses in communities around the Naameh landfill and the government’s failure to provide basic waste management services. The government responded to the “You Stink” movement by closing the landfill, constructing two new dumps, and passing the Integrated Solid Waste Management Law.

Yet these changes failed to produce sustainable long-term solutions to the crisis. The new landfills rapidly filled up. Activists called out the new waste management laws as ineffective and insufficient. And clientelist central government institutions, highly distributed decisionmaking, and allegations of corruption in the waste management sector have weakened accountability and lowered hopes that the government will play a constructive role alongside civil society in waste management reform.

The international community should learn from the failure of the You Stink movement by capitalizing on the increased integration, innovation, and impact of Lebanon’s environmental civil society. A 2023 survey of start-ups involved in solid waste management found that access to early-stage capital remains one of the most significant barriers for most companies. As Lebanon’s economic crisis continues to unfold, international financing will only become more important. International donors can address this gap by increasing microfinancing for local start-ups in the waste sector. And as the World Bank’s withdrawal from the Bisri Dam project demonstrates, the Lebanese government’s increasing dependence on foreign financing gives international donors leverage to condition development projects on the inclusion of environmental civil society.

In the absence of concerted government action, small projects by local actors may be the only feasible response to the waste crisis in Lebanon in the short term. By investing in early-stage microfinancing and promoting the inclusion of civil society in state projects, international actors can enable Lebanon’s environmental civil society to expand horizontally, scale up, and lay the foundations for a more sustainable system of waste management.

Martin Pimentel is a program manager and research associate in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.