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Beirut garbage crisis has Lebanese telling government: 'You stink!'

Beirut garbage crisis has Lebanese telling government: 'You stink!'
Los Angeles Times special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Beirut explains the Lebanese capital's trash crisis.

A full-blown sectarian war raging in neighboring Syria, a refugee crisis with no end in sight, a government that hasn't managed to elect a president in 14 months — none of this, many Lebanese boast, has dimmed their joie de vivre.

But a mounting trash crisis in the capital, Beirut, is pushing some Lebanese over the edge.

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Last week, trash collection in Beirut and its suburbs was suspended when activists from the town of Naameh, the site of Lebanon's main landfill, cut off the road to dump trucks operated by Sukleen, the private company in charge of waste management in Lebanon.

The landfill, first opened in 1997 as a stopgap measure, was supposed to operate only for a few years and take 2 million tons of trash, according to Ajwad Ayash, head of Naameh's "No to the Landfill" committee.

Eighteen years and more than 10 million tons of rubbish later, residents finally forced the government to declare the landfill's closure.

"The people of Naameh have suffered long enough," said Ayash. "The government was supposed to solve this issue long ago."

But with no alternative site selected, and with its own contract with the government expiring, Sukleen announced it would no longer empty dumpsters in the city and its suburbs, which collectively produce some 2,000 to 3,000 tons of refuse per day.

The result has been a slow invasion of sidewalks by moldering debris heaps.

Driving in the city, a difficult proposition on the best of days, now tests drivers' ability to squeeze their cars through tiny streets narrowed by the encroaching rubbish.

Meanwhile, Sukleen workers have taken to dousing the ever-expanding piles of trash with a white, lime-like powder to cut down on vermin and health risks, imparting the trash heaps with the appearance of frost-tinted urban art installations.

Of course, Beirut residents have become accustomed to myriad indignities: power outages, water shortages, a perpetually dysfunctional government and the occasional car bomb. Stinking mounds of trash in the midst of the sweltering summer are just the latest trial. This time, they can't blame Israel, a favorite target here for all woes.

Many Beirutis soldier on: Determined partygoers, bearded hipsters and women in full makeup and stilettos deftly sidestep bottles and food bags on their way to their favorite bar, avoiding the cats and cockroaches at the vanguard of the advancing waste agglomeration. People shake their heads in disgust and go on with their business.

Some outraged residents, however, have set fire to trash in apparent acts of protest and desperation, adding thick smoke and an acrid stench to air already redolent with the aroma of the waste of thousands. The fires and the stench combine for an apocalyptic tableau after dark.

A few municipalities have adopted an ad hoc approach, burying rubbish in makeshift landfills under bridges and empty lots. It's a kick-the-can strategy: The aim is to buy time until the country's parliament, a fractious body in semi-permanent gridlock, does something, perhaps this week. Parliamentary debates here, however, tend to focus endlessly on fine procedural points largely beyond the comprehension of all but insiders.

The trash crisis and the government's studied inaction have united many in their aversion to the nation's elected lawmakers. That's no small feat in a deeply divided country where numerous sects often appear on the verge of coming to blows.

On Saturday, a vocal crowd of a few hundred protesters demonstrated near the parliament building in downtown Beirut. They carried signs excoriating their putative representatives, while calling upon people to join a social media hashtag campaign telling the country's politicians, "You stink!"

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"Tell us, oh, government, are you trash or not?" screamed one protester, his forehead glistening in the afternoon sun.

Beside him, fellow demonstrators hoisted a chair topped with a blue bag of trash. Pinned to the bag was a sign.

"Trash," it read, "even if it's sitting in a [parliamentary] chair, is still trash."

Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Lyon, France, contributed to this report.

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