BEIRUT — When Hani Darwish rolled down his car window hoping to cool off from Beirut’s hot afternoon, he was instantly met with the sickly sweet rotting smell of the Lebanese capital’s newest inhabitant: uncollected garbage. Despite the stench, Darwish braved the deadlocked traffic and drove his Uber van around the city for four hours Friday, Earth Day, so he could collect recyclable items and help fix Lebanon's trash crisis.
It’s been nearly a year since the start of Lebanon’s trash crisis, the result of a political disagreement that saw the capital’s biggest landfill close, leaving garbage to plague the country. One solution was to promote more recycling, but for many living in Lebanon separating one’s trash is a luxury they cannot afford. Driving bags of plastic and paper to one of the dozens of recycling centers is a trip that most people in Lebanon do not think is worth the hassle of traffic. But on Friday, U.S.-based ride-hailing service Uber simplified this process by, literally, creating an app for that.
From 11 a.m. local time to 3 p.m. Friday the Uber mobile app in Beirut had an extra setting, “Uber Recycle,” that when selected would request a free pickup of electronic waste, also known as e-waste. Users entered their address and then all that was left to do was wait for one of white Uber vans to arrive. The initiative was a partnership with Beeatoona, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization, or NGO, focused on community based initiatives for environmental conservation.
— Vinelab (@Vinelab) April 22, 2016
“We didn’t think it would have that much of an effect, but I had 10 calls. Some were very far and they all had a lot of [recycling],” Darwish told International Business Times. “It was tiring, but it was worth it.”
Darwish was one of six Uber drivers the company chose to participate in the recycling initiative. The six drivers received roughly 70 requests in the four-hour window. The drivers were selected because of their high customer ratings and were paid a separate wage for their participation, Darwish said. He declined to say how much he was paid for this service.
By 3:15 p.m., Darwish was finishing up his last pickup and his van was filled with Beirut’s discarded electronics that he now had to drop off in Dora, a suburb outside of Beirut, at one of Beeatoona’s e-waste collection points.
— Uber Beirut (@Uber_Beirut) April 22, 2016
E-waste, which is anything from small items like old chargers and used batteries to larger office appliances and outdated cell phones, is the fastest growing type of waste in the world. In 2014, 41.8 million tons of e-waste were discarded and almost none of it was recycled, according to a report from the United Nations University, a global think tank and postgraduate institution.
“E-waste is classified as hazardous waste, containing more than 1,000 toxic substances that can contaminate the air, the water and the soil and can lead to potentially deadly diseases,” Nadine Haddad, director of the Beeatoona, said in a report.
E-waste is a significant part of Lebanon’s garbage problem, but actual figures for the country are hard to come by as the government has not collected data on waste since 2013 and has never calculated the country’s e-waste. The Global Waste Monitor’s latest report said each of Lebanon’s 4.15 million inhabitants produced 9 kilograms (about 20 pounds) of domestic e-waste in 2014, for a grand total of 32,000 metric tons.
Though any recycling initiative in Lebanon is helpful, the Earth Day efforts by Uber and Beeatoona are likely to make only a small dent in the country’s severe waste crisis.
Until March of this year, garbage pickup had been suspended throughout the country for eight months, mainly because there was nowhere to put it after the government closed the country’s main landfill, Na'ameh, last year. Protests erupted across the country, demanding a solution to the trash crisis.
Since the first protests last June, there have been several attempted solutions: Civilians have tried to burn it, garbage collectors have tried to hide it outside of city centers, experts explored the option of converting it to fuel and the government even tried to export it. None of these were seen as viable options, so last month Lebanon's Information Minister Ramzi Jreij announced that Na'ameh would reopen and two additional landfills would be created to accommodate the increasing trash.
Earlier this month, waste management company Sukleen began excavating Lebanon’s trash mountains, sorting the waste slotted to be moved. Though the government claims to have found a temporary solution, the return of last year’s garbage smell in Beirut is a clear sign that a great deal more needs to be done.