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Jun / Jul 2012
Squeaky Clean

Writer: Matt Nash / Photographer: Ghadi Smat & Corporate Images: Averda

In a region where recycling has not really caught on and many people still don’t think twice about throwing rubbish from their cars, Averda’s Maysarah Sukkar is out to change the way Middle Easterners think about trash. 


“Waste is a culture in itself,” Maysarah Sukkar tells me when we meet in one of the Beirut offices of Sukleen, the Lebanese rubbish collection and treatment company under the Averda umbrella. “We want to target the youth to change their habits.”

Sukkar knows his region and understands that being pushy and preachy won’t get him far. “We encourage people,” he explains. “We’re trying to find a system for the region whereby people come to believe in reducing waste and in keeping the streets clean.”

While Sukkar’s dedication to changing hearts and minds shines through as he talks – even Averda’s office workers have to spend one week walking the streets and picking up rubbish – he got into the field of waste management totally by accident.

Trained in his native Lebanon as a control engineer, Sukkar founded his first company, Sukkar Engineering, in 1968. He and his team built and maintained industrial systems. They were machine men, not rubbish men.

Less than a decade later – as what would be a 16-year civil war began in his home country – Sukkar was contracted to help repair a rubbish incinerator in Mecca. “And so we did,” he says, explaining in the process how his focus shifted from control engineering to waste management.

He did well in Saudi Arabia and the work just kept coming. After fixing the incinerator, Sukkar Engineering began managing the whole project. “One thing led to the other,” he recalls. “All the adjacent industries came together.”And so the company diversified into the collection, treatment, recycling and disposal of trash.

By 1993, Averda (Sukkar Engineering’s successor) began to expand outside of the Kingdom and won a bid to clean up Lebanon’s capital after the wars ended. Obviously proud of his achievements, Sukkar says that the job was done “in record time.”

“Beirut was full of rubble and rubbish,” he adds. “The country didn’t have any infrastructure for the waste sector so we had to build a complete structure for cleaning, for waste collection, even for sweeping.”

But collection and disposal are only part of the story. For waste managers worldwide, working out what to do with what they collect is becoming a vital question, especially with opposition to new dumps growing. One solution, of course, is to recycle. Undertaken to wildly differing degrees both within the region and without, it’s fair to say that no country has yet got the equation right.

Currently leading the regional pack in terms of recycling is Saudi Arabia. While Averda is not alone in managing trash in KSA, Sukkar says that some 90 per cent of the refuse Averda collects there gets recycled. Admittedly, this is not (yet) true of every country where the company works, nor is it indicative of regional trends.

According to Green Middle East – a regional waste management and environmental conference – the Gulf Cooperation Council countries produce some 80 million tons of rubbish annually. Exact, recent figures are hard to come by but a 2010 report by the Gulf Research Centre notes that “recycling is still very limited”, adding that the only “comprehensive form of recycling in the GCC countries has been in the case of paper and cartons, metals and cans.

The situation is not much better in the Levant. According to 2009 data from SWEEP-Net – a community of activists in the Middle East and North Africa born out of a European Commission-funded study – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories still haven’t really tackled the issue of recycling.

Jordan and Lebanon score highest, recycling 10 per cent and 8 per cent of their rubbish respectively. Syria and the Palestinian Territories each score under 3 per cent. Together, the four produce over 9 million tons of trash per year.

Open dumping – or throwing rubbish wherever one pleases – is also widespread in the region. Syrians and Palestinians dispose of over 75 per cent of their rubbish this way, as do 30 per cent of the Lebanese and 5 per cent of Jordanians - although a further 35 per cent of Jordan’s trash winds up in “controlled dumps”, which are not engineered with proper environmental protection in mind.

However, there are signs that things are getting better. Particularly in the GCC, governments are recognising the need to recycle more and are beginning to set ambitious targets for the future.

Averda is doing its part through Averda Learn, an educational programme that tries to raise awareness about the importance of properly sorting and recycling trash in countries where it operates. Sukkar says Averda is building new automated trash sorting lines that will require fewer people to operate and raise the amount of rubbish gleaned for recycling by a factor of five or ten.

In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Averda is also composting – turning organic waste like food leftovers into fertilizer. Still not widely practiced in the region, composting has potential. In a book last year on waste management, Palestinian academic Imad A. Khatib reported that nearly 50 per cent of rubbish in the region is organic.

By way of explanation, Sukkar says that people in the region tend to “buy more [food] than they need. For example, if you are four, you buy for ten.” As a result, much of the excess gets thrown away.

For Sukkar, waste is a commodity that goes beyond being a source of recycled materials and high-grade natural fertiliser. Waste can be – and in many other parts of the world, already is – used to generate heat and electricity.

The process is simple. Landfills release methane as waste decomposes. The methane can be trapped and burned to produce heat or electricity; even the rubbish itself can be burned to fire generators.

Of course, this requires a certain expertise but Sukkar explains that Averda already has experience of generating electricity from waste. In a region plagued by rolling brownouts, the logical question then has to be why does it not do so anymore?

The reason behind that is also quite simple. Averda works on the basis of state-issued contracts, which explicitly define what the company may or may not do as part of its remit. As Sukkar explains, none of Averda’s current contracts call for or indeed authorise it to generate power from the waste it treats.

If convincing ordinary people in the region to see waste in a different way is no easy task, apparently it isn’t much easier convincing their governments.

Despite this, Sukkar says Averda still pumps millions of dollars each year into researching and developing eco-solutions for waste and already has a host of innovative solutions ready to offer. All it needs to roll them out is an ear that is willing to listen.

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