Green without the spin

Electricité du Liban sign building rationing

Electricité du Liban sign rationed

As penance for my ungreen survival methods, I spent a day at the Renewable Energy Trade Fair and Beirut Energy Forum at the Metropolitan Hotel on 30 September 2010.

So much ink has been spilled over green energy across the western world that terms like low-carbon technology, fuel substitution and energy efficiency are wielded like weapons to divide and conquer multinational companies and reluctant governments alike. In Europe, green has grown from an eco-geek passion to a powerful monster able to stir into action the region’s biggest legislative bodies and set a new orientation for the economy.

But in Lebanon, green is barely on the radar. That means it hasn’t even reached the fad level yet. No, it isn’t even a bit cool to separate your trash into three bins, put them in your 4×4, spend an hour in traffic to cover a couple of hundred meters, and drop them off at a recycling point. Recycling trash is for the impoverished here, and  they do it themselves. According to figures presented by Nehmat Frem (President of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists and CEO of Indevco Group), 2.5% of trash in Lebanon (outside of Beirut) is “recycled by scavengers”.

In Europe, the gleam of all things green has become the most extensively employed marketing angle for everything from detergent to Jeeps. Glib promises tell us that paying more for thinner toilet roll or less packaging can turn us into planet saviours. Evidently, green sells.

But this is Lebanon. No-one is trying to pretend that business is not about making money here, even to patronise consumers. The near-nascent market for low-carbon products, technology and regulations needs no smoke screen. The driving factors are overwhelmingly financial and practical. The approach, therefore, was different. Fewer slick slogans and no emotionalism. Greenwashing hasn’t the same potential here.

Of course, Europeans would not have been so ready to join the bandwagon if it weren’t for various carrots and sticks, like scrap bonuses and tax breaks for fitting better insulation. The bottom line is the same. But I like it better without the superficially green wrapping paper of high-carbon marketing operations.

Assaad Nakhad of Electricité de Zahleh

Assaad Nakhad of Electricité de Zahleh

It was actually refreshing to consider these issues from the point of view of reduced expense and practicality. Not that protecting the planet isn’t the better argument. Just that in the mouths of businesses, with their inherently profit-oriented visions, the save-the-planet motive is not convincing. It is usually about dolling up their image with consumers or coming into line with government regulations.

The two most common low-carbon products available in Lebanon, energy saving lamps and solar water heating, do not need to appeal to the human sense of responsibility for our children’s future to sell well. People buy these technologies only because the electricity supply is so unreliable. The same consumers may still throw their empty cigarette packets out of the car window.

Nehmat Frem of Indevco Group presented a proposal for six incinerator power plants to turn the mountains of waste which skulk outside Lebanon’s towns into energy. “We have waste, we need energy,” he said, “I don’t know why we don’t do this tomorrow.”

Though in terms of motives affecting the local market, I must add, one insightful businessman did point to the Lebanese desire to be the first in the neighbourhood to try something new. Perhaps that favourite Lebanese pastime of imitating other cultures will in time usher in the green fad.

As for the scavenger-recyclers, they are still raking through the huge heaps of waste you pass along the highway from time to time, blackened by the sun and the filth. The last time I passed the dump near Saida, one lifted an arm in a nonchalant wave. I have a feeling they won’t be out of work just yet.

A big thank you to all those who took the time to tell me all about their activities and impressions on the potential for renewables locally, at NEEDS, Caisse des Dépôts Climat, Apave, Middle East Green Energy, Contra International, Arcan Altern Eco and Debbas to name just a few.

2 Responses to “Green without the spin”

  1. Fadi says:

    Unfortunately just like everything else, unless you give the consumer a tangible return on his “trouble”, he won’t commit to it. People are lazy and consequently tend to be irresponsible. To the average person, separating the trash is already a lot to do, and so having to drive god knows how far for a proper recycling bins makes it simply not worth the trouble. If you want people to change their behavior, you need to give them some sort of reward.
    In Sweden for instance (and I know this will most probably NOT work in Lebanon, on grounds of cultural difference if you will), empty bottles carry a Pant value (of usually 1SEK), and so when you go to the supermarket, you can take your empty bottles with you, deposit them into a machine, and the machine will give you your bottles’ worth in coins. This makes it practical for people who are going shopping anyway, to reduce their expenses by getting a direct return on their trouble of separating the recyclable bottles.
    Another practical thing we have here is the fact that almost every big residence complex has its own garbage “complex”, where you can throw your compost trash and separate paper/plastic/glass. Again, not having to walk long distances with your trash makes it worthwhile.

    Now as to how to get things fired up in Lebanon, my guess would be to have a proper infrastructure of recycling centers, “green” trash availability etc, then develop an incentive scheme for people to take part of the effort. While giving money back on empty bottles might work with medium to low income people, I see no way of this working with high income people (prestige people would simply rather die then be seen taking their trash to TSC).
    A while ago a heard of an initiative for mobile phone recycling organized by Nokia I think. Whatever happened to that initiative I don’t know, but it was a good idea, even though it might not be the first thing you think of in terms of recycling.

    • You’re right – how about more financial incentives for the masses (there are some already, especially for businesses which get paid per tonne of paper, card, plastic and so on), and regulations for new buildings enforcing recycling bins for each building? That would involve some of the wealthier residents. It would be a start, though not a solution.

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