Recycling Policies from the Bottom Up: Waste Work in Lebanon

Discussions on waste policy in Lebanon tend to focus on the country’s corrupt practices and the health and environmental impact of bad waste management. This paper examines an overlooked aspect: the story of waste pickers — many of whom are economic or forced migrants — who are essential to Lebanon’s garbage management. Through an ethnographic study of a group of underage waste pickers, it argues that it is time for policy debates on garbage in Lebanon to integrate the perspective of waste workers.

June 17, 2011 - Beirut, Lebanon - Street art stencil figure sweeping bullets on a war damaged building, downtown Beirut, near Place de Martyrs Graffiti depicting a man sweeping bullets, 2010. Morphogenesis of the Green Line / Lebanese Civil War 1975-1991.

Policy on waste infrastructure in Lebanon tends to focus on the efficacy of the delivery of these public services to the country’s citizens. And quite rightly so. Between the questionable treatment of solid waste and the high probability that much of what we throw into recycling bins is not being recycled, evidence mounts up to show that waste in Lebanon is badly managed. Stances against government waste management grew louder when the garbage crisis reached an apogee in 2015. With piles of foul-smelling rubbish bags conspicuously tucked away under highway bridges (and everywhere else!), the peak of this protracted crisis ultimately exposed the shortcomings of highly privatized and corrupt state bureaucracies.

The country’s recent slip into financial collapse makes all the more pertinent questions raised over the years by activists and public scholars about the negative consequences of profiteering and debt-making within the public-private partnerships (PPPs) of waste management. More germane than ever are the calls for inquiries into the long-lasting health and environmental effects of waste mishandling . Think here of the 2018 solid waste law permitting the mixing of household, medical, and industrial waste streams as they are dumped onto so-called landfills dotted across Lebanon’s landscape.

Then, on 4 August 2020, the detonation of large amounts of ammonium nitrate at the capital’s port further exacerbated the issue. The rubble and debris left to gather dust and decompose across much of Beirut have yet again brought into sharp focus the extent of the government’s negligence in protecting its citizens.

However, waste infrastructure in Lebanon is not simply a tale of corrupt political oligarchies, dubious financial engineering, or citizenship; nor is it about a global pandemic or the explosion at the Port of Beirut. It is also a story about labour, about the people who work in waste. These are the waste workers who are essential to the provisioning of public services, and many of whom are either economic or forced migrants in the country. They are the street sweepers, garbage truck drivers, the garbage collectors, as well as those who are part of informal networks of underage waste pickers who rummage through waste in search of recyclables. Despite, their vital role, waste workers, and especially waste pickers, are rarely mentioned in any policy-related discussion on waste. Why are such essential forms of labour typically overlooked?

Fragmented waste and recycling infrastructures

For at least three decades, residents of this so-called Merchant Republic have endured, daily, the increasing fragmentation of waste infrastructure, whereby different infrastructural components can become disconnected from one another.

In Lebanon, fragmentation occurs in the breaking down of infrastructure and in the way it has – and continues to be – built up. This is especially the case during the post-civil war era, when structural reforms sought to further liberalize the economy.

Starting in the 1990s, PPPs have become quite central to the way waste is managed across the country. They are considered beneficial because of the idea that private companies can relieve most of the state’s responsibility for the management of different stages of waste treatment. Unfortunately, the high costs of PPPs ultimately contributed to high levels of debt amongst different municipalities; little investment was possible for the upkeep or redesign of the infrastructure to deal with increased waste capacity, hence the 2015 waste crisis.

Profit-based infrastructure does not necessarily prioritize public interest. With the breakdown of PPPs, NGOs, private companies and informal networks have emerged as increasingly important actors in the management of waste. While they may occasionally work together, they do so in a haphazard way.

I began to seriously take notice of this “haphazardness” of waste infrastructure when I started anthropology fieldwork with a group of underage Syrian waste pickers in 2016. What began as a 12-month postdoctoral project became a four-year ethnographic study of this group of young boys as they grew up at a small Beirut scrapyard.1I began my research as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Orient Institute in Beirut. Further support has come from the Arab Council for the Social Sciences – "Environmentalism, Impoverishment and Social Justice Movements: Interdisciplinary Perspectives" Second Cycle (2018-2019) and funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation” and a British Academy funded project in collaboration between the Global Institute for Prosperity at the University College London and the American University of Beirut. The project is called: “Developing Infrastructural Solutions for Mass Displacements.”

The boys come from a village in the Euphrates Valley in Syria. When war broke out, their families sent them to work at a Beirut scrapyard located in the basement of a run-down building. The boys, aged between 8 and 16, some brothers or cousins, remained under the care and supervision of the scrapyard muallim (master), a young man in his twenties, who is also of the same community. Waste pickers would travel daily across the city pushing carts, with baskets attached, in search of scrap metal and plastic, clothes, shoes, games, books, and wooden furniture. Scrap metal and plastic were sold into supply chains for export and local recycling, respectively. Clothes and the like were sold by waste pickers’ relatives at travelling flea markets around the Beqaa Valley.

The efforts of these young waste pickers belong to a myriad of activities that revolve around collecting and sorting through Beirut’s waste. Whereas those in the small scrapyard concentrated their efforts on salvaging discarded items from rubbish bins, NGOs tended to focus on collecting sorted bags from households. Some NGOs set up sorting containers in certain areas of the city, but the waste pickers still had full reign. Meanwhile, private waste companies, first Sukleen and then Ramco, collected bins and skips of mixed waste.

This hodgepodge of infrastructural labour really only exists because of the absence of an integrated plan for waste management in Lebanon. What I learnt, however, is that despite this fragmented infrastructure, waste workers provide essential labour. Many take pride in what they do. And, in the case of the small scrapyard, the labour of the young waste pickers facilitates the profits of one of Lebanon’s most successful industries: scrap metal.

Small Scrapyard in Beirut, 20 February 2017. © Elizabeth Saleh

What makes an economy of recycling?

Waste infrastructure in Lebanon may be splintered but it still feeds into global economies of recycling.  In the case of scrap metal, copper and iron continue to be among Lebanon’s leading exports.  For example, in 2018, scrap copper was the third leading export, worth $146 million, followed by scrap iron at $142 million.

This so-called circular economy where profit-making requires the movement of material through exports is supported by a local scrap metal industry that relies heavily on informal and wageless workers. These disparities between the free flow of material and the restricted and unequal mobility of people are hardly specific to Lebanon. The global scrap metal industry – as with other economies of recycling – utilizes models that focus their scope of analysis exclusively on materials but almost entirely overlook labour.2Alexander, Catherine and Reno, Joshua. 2012. Introduction. In: Catherine Alexander and Joshua Reno, eds. Economies of recycling: global transformations of materials, values and social relations. London: Zed Books, 1–35.

This emphasis on materials is central to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, which Lebanon ratified in 1994. The convention defines waste based upon its reusability and capacity to be recycled. Scrap metal can be deemed as both waste and hazardous waste. This is due to the potential toxicities of certain non-metallic additives. Sample testing is thus a pre-requisite for any shipment. Yet this chemical analysis happens after salvaging has taken place – a practice typically carried out across most parts of the world, including in Lebanon, by informal waste pickers.

Further entanglements of the global and the national at the level of industry and trade become clear in Lebanon’s relationship with Turkey – one of the main importers of Lebanon’s scrap iron. The Free Trade Agreement that was formalized with Turkey in 2010 has faced several obstacles. About a year following its signing, the Syrian conflict stalled attempts to formally expand trade networks and related infrastructure to Syria.

In May 2018, the then caretaker economy minister Raed Khoury backtracked on the agreement by prohibiting the import of biscuits and detergents from Turkey. He curiously argued that the prices of these particular goods had been lowered due to the Turkish Lira devaluation. As a result, Lebanese sweet and detergent industries could no longer compete in the local market. Turkey responded by halting the import of scrap iron from Lebanon, thereby impacting the livelihoods of scrapyards waste workers. Tensions eased by early 2019 following negotiations between Turkey and Lebanon.

What really makes an economy of recycling?

With scrap metal making up nearly a total 10% of Lebanon’s exports in 2018, it is clear that the industry is important to Lebanon’s economic growth. A decline in export can therefore inadvertently reduce overall GDP. However, when we acknowledge that the scrap metal business relies heavily on informal and undocumented workers, a contradiction comes to the fore. GDP and other economic indicators rely on data that does not necessarily take into account the kinds of labour involved in the production of goods and services. More importantly, this data overlooks who is really contributing to the GDP.

Scrapyards in Lebanon typically fall under two categories: large scrapyards and small ones. The larger scrapyards belong to registered companies officially recognized by the state. They have better-established contacts at ports in Tripoli, Beirut, and Saida, as well as with buyers in Turkey and Bulgaria – Lebanon’s main scrap importers. These scrapyards use heavy machinery to separate different kinds of scrap in wide-open spaces. At least some of their workers have work permits and pay taxes.

The second type are smaller scrapyards. They are often located in abandoned or run-down buildings where, aside from hammers, pliers, and the occasional drill, technology is largely limited to the hands and feet of mostly young boys who throw or stomp on old washing machines and fridges and tear wires apart. Their muallim buys the boys’ findings/collections and sells the merchandise on to larger scrapyards.

Throughout my fieldwork, I noticed that those who worked in larger scrapyards were aged at least 17. Meanwhile, those who either sold to or were based at small scrapyards were typically considerably younger. In other words, underage labour has an important role in the first-stage sourcing of recyclables.

I had the opportunity to speak with Palestinian men who had worked as young boys collecting iron and copper from around the outskirts of Beirut. I learnt from my conversations with Lebanese displaced from the south that many of the men had worked as waste pickers during their youth. Salvaging for scrap had, at one point, been an important lifeline. Indeed, this had also become the case for the small scrapyard with the young boys from Raqqa.

This broad schema of scrapyards in Lebanon does not suggest a collective or even a shared vision of what the industry should look like. In many respects, the scrap metal industry has come about through happenstance. With its limited attention to developing the industry or public services, Lebanon’s legacy of a laissez-faire policy economy has a part in facilitating the growth of the scrap market. Likewise, extended periods of war have not only increased the availability of scrap metal to be salvaged from damaged buildings (for many years to come) but also forged the space for the scrap labour market to thrive.

And now, as the economy continues to collapse and inflation creeps up, looking through rubbish for scrap metal to salvage has become more lucrative than ever. Since November 2019, I have met with a growing number of people – citizens and migrants – who are rummaging through rubbish bins in search predominantly for scrap metal to sell onto scrapyards. Many are fathers and their young sons working together to supplement the family’s meagre salaries.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck

Before the official start of Lebanon’s first lockdown in mid-March 2020, I paid a quick visit to the small scrapyard. I had heard that the muallim had been instructed by the municipal police to temporarily close the scrapyard. When I arrived, waste pickers were busy tidying up. A couple of boys were sweeping up debris, while others piled up bags of metal and plastic, ready for the muallim’s last trip to the large scrapyard. Some boys were packing bags to take leave to stay with relatives in the Bekaa.

The mood was sombre. Nobody knew when work could resume. When I asked the waste pickers if any were worried about catching the coronavirus while they worked in trash, Usman, one of the younger boys (aged 9) shrugged his shoulders and said: “We will die from hunger before we die from corona.”

Statements like these were heard across Lebanon throughout the extended lockdown. People were already going hungry long before the pandemic struck. It was evident that governmental aid had failed to reach the vast majority of the population in need. Unsurprisingly, the scrapyard community was excluded from government support on grounds of their migrant status. The few provisions that the community received came in the form of medical care from international and local NGOs.

I caught up with Usman’s older brother, Harun, a month into the lockdown. He came up from the Bekaa Valley hoping to earn some money. I immediately noticed that he had lost a lot of weight. Without Harun working, the family could not afford basic items, including food.

The muallim had continued to pay out small amounts of money to the family. However, with all scrapyards shut and zero scrap shipped out from ports, the Muallim was also finding it difficult to get by. Harun told me that a few boys were searching for food through the waste, something he said he could never do.

As the lockdown months continued, Harun and other waste pickers started to store salvaged scrap in large carts. They placed the carts in discrete areas of empty car park lots across the city and waited until the city and the ports reopened.

Large carts used by waste pickers - different to the small cart as seen in the first photo. During the lockdown, large carts were stored away in empty car parks across the city). 10 May 2020. © Elizabeth Saleh

A viable living?

By the end of April, Harun and Usman hastily returned to work.  According to Usman, prices for scrap iron had risen slightly in May. He explained in a matter-of-fact manner that the hike was due to inflation and that larger scrapyards were hastily trying to collect scrap iron in preparations for shipment. For the boys, the price increase meant that scrap iron was now worth 300Liras per kilogram, which at the official exchange rate to the U.S. Dollar, was worth around 20 cents.

The average earnings waste pickers make are difficult to estimate. The quantity of scrap they find is contingent on the amount of waste disposed of by households, restaurants, and businesses, as well as on how much the boys can carry back to the scrapyard. Waste pickers were also dependent upon the muallim, who decided what kinds of scrap they should concentrate on, with priority typically given to metal given ongoing high prices.

The muallim dealing directly with the larger scrapyards meant that he was in charge of all major monetary transactions among his team of waste pickers. With the money he earned from selling all the scrap, the muallim paid rent for the basement and for the boys who resided upstairs. Some funds were sent to the boys’ families in Syria or in Lebanon. There were also small allowances given to the boys so that they could buy food.

The muallim’s payments to the boys and their families were rarely described to me as reimbursements for their labour. Nor were these payments measured in terms of how much scrap the boys had sold to the muallim. The payments were perceived as part of the muallim’s familial obligation to the larger community. In turn, by carrying out their waste picking labour, the boys understood that they had taken on new familial responsibilities as well.

The relations between the boys and their elders, including the muallim, did not resemble those that typify forced child labour. The boys could stop working at any time. For example, just after Daesh was expelled from their village in mid-2017, many boys took time off to spend the summer with mothers and sisters who were visiting. They had not seen each other for over two years.  However, waste pickers always returned to work. The stream of cash circulating out from the scrapyard into the community was an indispensable life-support for dispersed households. Harun’s mother explained to me that the money just kept their heads above water.

Regardless of their outward resilience, waste pickers reflected constantly on what might have happened if the war had not arrived at their doorsteps. Those who were old enough to attend school back in the village fondly recalled their school days. I was often told that they felt they had missed out on the opportunity of a formal education. It was not that they had chosen not to go to school; it was, they explained, the war that had shattered their lives. All their families agreed. And, so did the muallim who, up until fighting began in Syria, was studying to obtain his university degree in engineering.

Towards a people’s economy of recycling

Waste work in Lebanon is a story about how markets can thrive through the waste and recycling infrastructure. However, as such markets flourish, infrastructures tend to break down. And, in this respect, waste work in Lebanon is a tale that reveals the haphazardness of an infrastructural system when it is designed for profit-making.

The absence of any integrated system for recycling has opened up sites for informal economies – spaces that are often overlooked by policy-makers. The answer is not simply to seek ways to formalize these different activities. The significant presence of underage workers inside the scrap metal industry, for example, raises serious questions about the viability of simply formalizing their labour. Also, as long as the labour of waste pickers is an important lifeline for their families, policy-makers will not succeed in simply prohibiting children from working.

My ethnographic study has shown that within economies of recycling, infrastructure is not only bins, landfills, and garbage trucks but also labour. The public’s responsibility to care for infrastructure must extend to the labour that sustains it, including underage waste pickers. Ultimately we must start to integrate their perspectives into our policy analyses. Until then, Harun and Usman would appreciate it if Beirut residents could start separating their trash at home.


1 I began my research as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Orient Institute in Beirut. Further support has come from the Arab Council for the Social Sciences – "Environmentalism, Impoverishment and Social Justice Movements: Interdisciplinary Perspectives" Second Cycle (2018-2019) and funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation” and a British Academy funded project in collaboration between the Global Institute for Prosperity at the University College London and the American University of Beirut. The project is called: “Developing Infrastructural Solutions for Mass Displacements.”
2 Alexander, Catherine and Reno, Joshua. 2012. Introduction. In: Catherine Alexander and Joshua Reno, eds. Economies of recycling: global transformations of materials, values and social relations. London: Zed Books, 1–35.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.