Trash Talk: How a Local Initiative is Helping to Clean Up Lebanon

Date and time: 10 May 2023

“We believe that substantial changes can happen from within, through small steps and strong beliefs.” – The waste crisis in Lebanon and the SWIM Initiative.

Byblos harbour at sunset. Photo: LouisLFollow, Flickr

Long-suffering Lebanon has spent the last three years in the grips of what the World Bank described as one of the worst financial and economic crises recorded globally since the mid-19th century.  Added to this already heavy burden is an environmental one that is often overlooked.

Lebanon’s waste treatment policies have been inefficient for years. They are based on a centralized waste management system, typically run by one company with links to the political elite, and which is responsible for waste collection, city and street cleaning, as well as landfill management across the whole country.

Lebanon’s landfills not only have limited space, but also lack sorting capacities. Because of this, waste often ends up in open dumps, being burned off or finding its way to the sea and rivers. Paradoxically, the Lebanese government is spending around $420 million every year on environmental degradation and solid waste management solutions – a huge amount compared to its neighbors.

Like many other pressing issues in the country, consecutive governments in Lebanon have treated waste management as a secondary issue, addressing it through a series of semi-successful emergency plans only when the situation becomes critical, while neglecting it the rest of the time.

In the summer of 2015, the closure of the Naameh landfill in the south of Beirut unleashed a crisis in the city. The landfill, which was opened as a temporary solution, had reached seven times its capacity before it was closed. As a result, the main waste management company stopped collecting trash, saying that it had nowhere to take it. 

“Our objective is to make the public aware of the fragility of our ecosystem and the importance of preserving it to ensure a sustainable future for generations to come”

Lisa Sofian, co-founder of the SWIM-Initiative

Piles of garbage soon congested the streets of Beirut, stewing in the Mediterranean city’s summer heat. The situation sparked a nationwide protest movement under the slogan “you stink,” which ran for several weeks and broadened its aim to point the finger at the widespread corruption and clientelism that blight Lebanon’s confessionalist political system.

Lebanon’s socio-economic crisis has deepened since 2019 and has been compounded by a political collapse. Public services such as waste management are deteriorating, and pollution and waste dumping is increasing. Although many people in the country are aware of the severity of the environmental crisis and its impact on public health, climate, and nature, they feel powerless to change the situation. For many Lebanese, the only solution is to leave the country and to build a future somewhere else.

Changing tides

Lisa Sofian did the opposite.

“Having lived abroad for a lengthy period during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90), and in Montreal, Canada, more specifically, I was amazed by the cleanliness in these countries, and I always wished that Lebanon would be the same,” she says.

Sofian felt passionate about protecting the environment and raising public awareness on sustainability, and the 2015 waste management crisis provided a launch pad for her to put her beliefs into action.

“Together with four other women we decided to establish an association called WILL (Women’s Initiative for Leadership in Lebanon). After many fruitless visits to the responsible ministries to find a solution to the dreadful environmental pollution that such a situation could cause, we felt our striving impact was negligible and demoralizing,” Sofian adds.

“Years passed and the Lebanese environmental situation never fully improved as the country faced many political challenges and a lack of good governance. Lebanon’s residents have now even lost a sense of responsibility and civic duty toward the environment.”

Another initiative was born after Sofian reconnected with an old school friend, Nabil Aouad. In March 2021, the pair launched Sustainable Waste Intercity Marathon (SWIM), a platform that combines open water swimming with beach cleanups along Lebanon’s coastline.

Garbage collected by the SWIM-Initiative in Akkar, North of Lebanon. Photo: Lisa Sofian, SWIM-Initiative

“Our objective is to make the public aware of the fragility of our ecosystem in a polluted environment and the importance of preserving it to ensure a sustainable future for generations to come,” Sofian says.

“One of our biggest challenges is to sensitize people to the value of waste if reduced or reused and to encourage them to become responsible, to acquire regenerative thinking by sorting at source and by changing their habits.”

Aouad’s connection to the water was deeply personal and formed part of his recovery from lung cancer as he swam in the Mediterranean Sea off his native Aamchit, just north of Byblos.

“This was the same sea where he had spent most of his younger years building a special bond with the waves, the sea species, and the fishermen,” Sofian says.

For Nabil, the sea was now washing away the pain from the cancer he had likely developed as a result of spending years working in a polluted environment.

Nabil’s urge to clean the sea of dirt grew stronger and stronger, until SWIM was officially founded in March 2021.

“Our sea is our natural treasure and our major source of life, and we can only save it by passing on the right messages to the following generations.”

Lisa Sofian, co-founder of the SWIM-Initiative

The first SWIM campaign, called “It’s Your Sea”, comprised 16 stages of open water swimming up the entire coastline of Lebanon, beginning in Naqoura, south Lebanon, on 21 August 2021 and finishing in Akkar, north Lebanon, on 30 October 2021. A total of 16 “Swim Along, Clean Along” events were held in cities along the route.

“The events (…) mobilized 2,700 volunteers through the events, kicking off with 50 people in Naqoura and snowballing to 723 in Tripoli, despite the pandemic, the economic and the fuel crises in Lebanon,” Sofian says.

Never give up

The SWIM initiative has since grown.

“Ever since, we have been pursuing our fight against water pollution (sea and rivers) in Lebanon. We do CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) cleanup activities for small and big corporations, we go to schools and universities to mobilize youth to join our cause, and we participate in major sports events creating eco-friendly zones,” Sofian adds.

SWIM-Initiative team with the SWIM and the Lebanese flags in Qornet el Sawda, the highest mountain in Lebanon and the region. Photo: SWIM

SWIM’s campaigns focus on the correlation between environmental pollution and public health issues and illnesses such as cancer, cholera and other diseases propagated through water, food and air.

“We believe that substantial changes can happen from within, through small steps and strong beliefs. We want people to see how they can create impact through individual responsibility and collective efforts. Our leitmotif is to never give up on the environment,” she says.

“Our sea is our natural treasure and our major source of life, and we can only save it by passing on the right messages to the following generations so that they can shape the future of our planet without taking it for granted.”

Sofian believes today’s young generation is more knowledgeable and better poised to safeguard sustainable life on Earth.

“They are ready to change their life habits, participate in clean-ups, rationally consume water and electricity, recycle, and buy ecofriendly products. They must become an equal partner in decision-making processes related to environmental issues and lead the way in the adoption of sustainable solutions,” she says.

Follow the SWIM Initiative on Facebook and Instagram.

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