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Lebanese trash – Dangerous!? Or, to produce electricity?!!

Janaury 14, 2016 By Oswald Hanciles

Last week Friday, I was interviewed on the US-based Sierra Leonean-owned radio, TPN, on the subject, “Journalism in Sierra Leone”. Typical of journalists, out of the blue, I was asked to comment on the news that has been raging on social media: the alleged importation into Sierra Leone of trash from Lebanon.  Partly to buy myself necessary fraction of seconds of time to think out my answer, I responded to that question the Sierra Leonean way – with another question: “Do you want me to answer your question scientifically, evasively, emotionally, or clinically…?”.

The Dutch, Masada, and Business of Trash

It was then that I mentioned my interview of Masada Waste Management Company’s 1981-Krootown Road-born Managing Director, Andrew Wilson. I met the still athletic former player in the New York Giants American football team some seven months ago.  I was following up on the visit to Sierra Leone of the Dutch Minister for International Cooperation, Lilliane Ploumen, on July, 2015 – with 35 potential Dutch investors. At the end of a public-private star-studded meeting given luminescence   by President Ernest Bai Koroma, the Dutch businesses signed MoUs with five indigenous companies.  One of them was Sierra Leonean-owned Masada Waste Management Company.

The Masada MD had told me that the MoU with the Dutch company would be for a waste-to-energy plant for Masada. After giving me detailed information on the waste management successes and hurdles his company has faced over the past year of being contracted by the Freetown City Council (FCC) to collect waste from Orogu Bridge in the far east of the Freetown peninsular to Lumley in the West end (which includes slowness of the FCC to pay them agreed fees), the Masada MD told me that he has doubt whether there would be enough trash collected in Freetown to feed a waste-to-energy machinery. The news about the Lebanese trash being imported into the country kindled in my memory that information from Masada – so, I mentioned it on the TPN radio interview. I never said Masada was behind it. I never said it was a good thing for Sierra Leone.

Yoga Calm in the storm of ‘Trashgate’

As the debate on what has been dubbed ‘Trashgate’ thundered in the about 50 social media groups I am part of, I have taken a characteristically detached Yoga posture: calling for emotional calm within the inferno of denunciations; to let us examine the facts.

No doubt, Lebanon has a desperate need to get rid of the trash drowning its cities.  Read the following 2015-published excerpt from a Lebanese newspaper: “Karantina, a lower-income section of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, is under siege. But the attackers aren’t an enemy army — they’re flies…Lebanon’s Daily Star…described ‘swarms’ of flies ‘devouring Karantina neighborhoods,’ ….Abou Saleh…called the onslaught ‘unnatural.’ And it’s not just flies: ‘The rats…They enter our homes … my daughter was bitten by a rat on her chin one month ago.’…A months-old protest campaign called ‘YouStink’ has put together street protests, demanding that Lebanon get clean…”. (SOURCE: http://www.follownews.com/why-lebanon-is-protesting-over-garbage-cig)

Al Jazeera website published this of the trash crisis in Lebanon, blamed on intractable corruption: “…..Another protester suggested Lebanese politicians be thrown out with the growing piles of rubbish. (Source: Al Jazeera http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/stink-protesters-return-beirut-streets-150921001623682.html)

Given the tsunami of condemnation from the Sierra Leone public which appears to be roping in a Member of Parliament, it does appear that Lebanon has attempted to export to Sierra Leone not only its flies and rat-infested trash, but, also its political trash.

Wait. Hold your breath!  Don’t eddy into the whirlpool of mass hysteria over an issue without the facts. Is importing trash from another country such a horrible thing?

Sweden imports trash

Sweden has …. 32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants and this burned waste powers 20 percent of Sweden’s district heating gas,   as well as electricity – for about 250,000 Swedish homes.

In fact, Sweden has become so good at recycling their waste; the country now has to import 800,000 tons of trash each year from the U.K., Italy, Ireland and Norway to keep their WTE plants up and running.

According to Swedish Waste Management communications director Anna-Carin Gripwell, “Waste today is a commodity in a different way than it has been. It’s not only waste, it’s a business.” There, even Sweden imports trash. (Sweden’s 9.8 million people have a GDP per capita of $47,319 as against Sierra Leone’s 6 million people’s GDP per capita of $1,344. Sweden’s HDI ranking is 14th; and is the seventh richest country in the world – Sierra Leone’s HDI ranking is 183rd. Sweden has a knowledge-intensive export-oriented economy; Sierra Leone’s economy is largely agrarian and predatory in cities. Thanks to its top-notch waste management structure, the Netherlands is able to recycle no less than 64% of its waste – and most of the remainder is incinerated to generate electricity. (SOURCE: http://waste-management-world.com/a/dutch-successes). There, the Dutch, who signed that MoU with Masada, are experts in the conversion of waste-to-energy business.

There are currently 86 waste-to-energy facilities in the United States. According to the Energy Recovery Council, they provide 2,700 MW of clean electricity on a 24-hour-per-day, 365-day-per-year basis – that can power about 2 million homes.

In Europe there are more than 400 of these facilities.  In 40 countries around the world – especially China and Japan; and Ethiopia – there are waste-to-energy plants today.

(SOURCE: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-burning-garbage-to-produce-energy-make-sense/)

Waste-to-energy industry for Salone…not so simplistic

Now, let me guide you with linkages. The Dutch government led Dutch investors here last year. They signed MoU with Masada that could lead to waste-to-energy factory. There could not be enough waste to feed the machines. So, as in normal business, when an industry does not have enough local raw materials, it imports it. Lebanon has trash to export – Sierra Leone needs more trash for a probable electricity generation.  Of course, it would not be as simplistic as that.

We don’t even know whether Masada has an interest in this trash business; or, will be interested in it. Or, Masada could benefit from this particular ‘trashgate deal’ – with the trash supposed to come into the country for fertilizer production, not electricity generation.  Also, how does Sierra Leone ensure that the trash from Lebanon does not have toxic substances that could cause damage within our country that will do us far more harm than good?  When would the trash arrive from Lebanon?  When would the waste-to-energy plant from the Dutch be installed for Masada?  If the trash comes first too long before the machinery is installed where would the trash be stored?

These are questions that should be posed OPENLY in dialogue with diverse publics – politicians, youth, women, engineers, land experts, etc.  The entire ‘trashgate’ has been a monumental public relations blunder. To me, it accentuates what I have bemoaned in successive Sierra Leone governments.  They have often woefully failed to bring in media people at the beginning of projects. I now publicly appeal to this APC government to learn from this, and go into Development Communication mode in all significant government projects.  Still, doing damage control, we can elevate the discourse on the issue of trash – locally generated, or imported, trash – to the Dutch Lowlands’ “Inclusive Economic Growth” momentum.

The Dutch’s Inclusive Growth and Salone Public Relations

There has been on average 6% economic growth in Africa over the past decade.  This growth has been for only a few; poverty for the majority is still a harsh reality, a volatile ‘time bomb possibility’. The Dutch aim to send aid to Africa; but, they are now fusing aid with trade.  Hear the Dutch Minister for International Cooperation, Liliane Ploumen on this: “…In essence… we aim to find win-win solutions: contributing to sustainable and inclusive growth in low and middle income countries, whilst promoting Dutch businesses to invest in and trade with these countries, and finding and accelerating innovative solutions with the capacity to contribute to sustainable and inclusive growth throughout the world…..”

Don’t rush over those words: “…finding and accelerating innovative solutions…” For, Sweden, Denmark, the United States….waste-to-energy commercial projects are now normal; for Sierra Leone, it is innovative. We have to do the cost-benefit-analysis of course – and that would include Environmental Impact Assessments. Above all, we have to create the ‘business climate’ for such promising opportunities as the Dutch give us hope for.

Creating a good business climate in Salone

Reflect on the words of Ploumen again: “A good business climate is important not only for commercial parties in low and middle income countries, but also for Dutch SMEs wishing to operate there. For any small or medium enterprise (SME) to succeed, whether Dutch, Vietnamese or Congolese, an environment that facilitates the creation and development of SMEs is required. …The Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries (CBI) helps exporters in these countries resolve these issues …”

The onus for creating that ‘good business climate’ rests primarily with government.  Government has to dramatically improve its communication capacity within the country; across political party lines; and in its engagement with experts.  Information  that emanates from, or is influenced by,  government that tends to be divisive, provocative, could only harden the political opposition and fuel the cause of the extremists, and cause more confusion among civil society – the reverse of a ‘good business climate’ could then be created.  Investors don’t rush to invest in a country that appears ready to explode the next week.  Government has to educate the general public – political partisans and political opposition – to work on goals of common interest; that would be seen as beneficial to the majority of the country.

Strident, unscientific sounding off like has happened over ‘thrashgate’ could send fears down the spines of potential investors. The last thing any serious investor wants is to walk into a public relations landmine in a tiny African country like ours where the money involved would be comparatively peanuts. That was what I meant when I asked the TPN radio interviewer whether I should respond “emotionally, scientifically….”. I refuse to be eddied into the emotional whirlpool of wholesale denunciation of trash – which could be, potentially, a good thing; at least, a good example of what can be commercially done to enhance sustainable development. If scientifically done.