Trash collection prices draw controversy


25 August 2015

BEIRUT: The price of trash collection is set to rise countrywide, according to the figures released by Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk Monday.

But the numbers prompted Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to threaten to derail the agonizing process to reform the nation’s waste management sector, at a time when municipalities are already dumping untreated garbage in valleys, streams and populated areas.Machnouk announced the eligible private consortium bids to manage the country’s waste at a news conference at the Council for Development and Reconstruction, along with the price charged by each bidder.

They range from $148 per ton, charged by Jihad Construction Company to handle garbage for Bekaa and Hermel, to $189, charged by Batco and Lavajet in the North and Akkar, and prices higher still for likely noncompetitive bids. Practically every bid is accompanied by an international company.

There is just one eligible bid for the Beirut and southern suburbs region, Machnouk said, submitted by the Batco/Lavajet consortium, at the price of $168 per ton.

Averda, the parent company of Sukleen, was said to take $147 per ton of garbage it collected from Beirut and Mount Lebanon. It was among the highest fares in the world. Amman pays $38 per ton to manage its garbage.

What remains now is for the Cabinet to examine the eligible bids for each of the country’s six waste management districts and select the winners. They may do this as soon as Tuesday, though Berri’s Monday night announcement may have obliterated these aspirations.

“[Berri] demands the review of the waste management bids, on account of the high prices, or for the cancellation of the contract tenders process, altogether,” said a statement carried by the National News Agency.

Machnouk said the terms of the contracts justified the rising prices. The seven-year contract terms are “short,” he said, and they mandate that 75 percent of the collected garbage is recycled, composted or incinerated – in other words, not landfilled. Sukleen used to landfill about 80 percent of what it collected.

“These prices include the cost of establishing treatment plants and preparing sanitary landfills, whereas Sukleen was able to use an existing plant,” Machnouk clarified in a statement afterward.

But the numbers infuriated the You Stink campaign, environmentalists and at least one of the disqualified bidders. The You Stink campaign had seized upon Sukleen’s high fares as a symbol of the government’s corruption; already, Monday evening, demonstrators in Downtown Beirut were protesting the new costs.

“My heart is in agony,” fumed Riad al-Assad after Machnouk’s conference, “because the Lebanese state has left us to say that Sukleen is the cheapest.”

Assaad’s company, South For Construction, had its bid to manage Beirut disqualified. The company offered to charge $118 per ton, he said. SFC submitted the only eligible bid for the Chouf region, though, charging $153 per ton.

“I think it’s outrageous,” said Ziad Abichaker, the head of Cedar Environmental, a company that builds waste treatment plants in Lebanon.

“I mean, please, bring back Sukleen!” Abichaker laughed sarcastically; he was one of the more outspoken detractors of the Averda contract.

“I’ve said it before that it’s because they brought the big international companies that the prices are so outrageous. These guys won’t touch it if they can’t get paid at least $100 per ton. We could have brought in smaller international companies – bring it down a couple of notches from the big guns,” he said.

Ali Darwish, the head of the environmental NGO Green Line Association, called the prices “scandalous.”

He said Averda’s old contract obligated Sukleen to reduce the amount of waste it sent to landfill, but the company never did.

“Sukleen was supposed to do the same job, but it was not monitored. This is a joke. Why should we accept that somebody would charge [for the same task] even higher prices?” he said.

A 2001 Environment Ministry document shows that Sukleen was supposed to nearly triple its composting capacity, which would have lowered its landfilling figures by about 20 percent.

But the company never did, and its plant remains the same as it was at the start of the century.

Seventeen bids were submitted to manage waste in six zones that span the country, as part of a yearlong process to overhaul the sector.

Monday Machnouk announced which of the bids met the technical requirements of the contract tenders, and disqualified the rest. The bids, he said, were evaluated by three international consulting firms, Ramboll, IGIP and Fichtner. He vowed that the prices were commensurate with the services offered, from street sweeping, to garbage collection, to recycling and disposal.

Sami Shahwan, the Head of Finance for CET, said his company’s bid for Beirut was wrongly disqualified. “They said they rejected our bid because we didn’t indicate a location for a sanitary landfill.

“But we had proposed a zero-waste plan, through treatments that would leave you with no byproducts to landfill.

“Either they don’t get it, or they don’t want to get it,” he said, although he cautioned that he awaited a written explanation for his company’s disqualification.

Shahwan added he was certain Beirut could negotiate a lower price to have someone manage its waste.

Even if the Cabinet awards the new contracts this week, Beirut and Mount Lebanon residents will still have to wait another six months for normal garbage services to resume.

The successful consortiums need time to establish their facilities, the environment minister said at the news conference Monday.

The trash crisis appears set to roll on in the interim, as Machnouk offered no concrete short-term plans to manage mounting waste.

He suggested the government could look to reopen the Naameh landfill, until the new contractors were ready to begin work, but it is hard to imagine this would be possible in the current political climate.

© Copyright The Daily Star 2015.