The City’s Life Force: Waste Work in Beirut during Crisis and Collapse
The City’s Life Force: Waste Work in Beirut during Crisis and Collapse
By Elizabeth Saleh and Rita Jarrous
In this photo-essay, we document the efforts of waste workers as they handle and sort through discarded and recyclable items in Beirut. We show how these workers are “vital infrastructures” to the city (Fredericks 2018). And yet, public discussions in Lebanon about waste management almost entirely overlook the role of labour in infrastructural systems. The absence of waste work from much analysis may have to do with the fact that much of it is carried out by migrants, many of whom are undocumented (Saleh 2021). It might also have to do with the heavy emphasis within policy on waste technologies (Saleh & Jarrous, forthcoming).
Through image, text and sound, we examine how waste labour constitutes a life force coursing through the city. That waste workers are essential to sustaining life during times of crisis and collapse is testament to their vital roles across the albeit, fragmented urban landscape. To examine their “vital mode of being”, we turn to the affective forms of waste work. By affective form, we mean that we will be looking at the way certain artifacts become entangled with waste labour to make vital infrastructures. For instance, we reflect on how waste engages the senses through particular encounters with waste materials. As we move through the senses, we also reflect on another component of their affective form which is: that despite their seemingly invisible bodies, the labour of waste workers resonates throughout daily life in the city.
In our conclusion, we briefly reflect on some of the methodological issues that have surfaced as a result of crisis and collapse. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be a significant obstacle in terms of carrying out extensive and immersive fieldwork with waste workers. The Beirut explosion was a life shattering moment that raised all sorts of ethical questions. How to conduct ethnographic fieldwork when researchers and interlocutors have been deeply impacted, even traumatised by the event?
Our analysis draws from our individual ethnographic projects in Beirut, Lebanon. Elizabeth Saleh has been conducting fieldwork with a community of informal underage waste pickers based at a Beirut scrapyard since 2016. Rita Jarrous recently commenced a study of waste workers formally employed by Ramco, a private company overseeing waste management in Beirut and Mount Lebanon.
The medium through which we are sharing this photo-essay is a blog that we are developing. We hope for this blog to become a database or, better still, an archive of waste work in Lebanon. Pending the current pandemic, we intend to document the life histories of different waste workers across the country. We also aim to unpack the diverse histories of waste management. We welcome any contributions and reflections. Thank you!
Politics of Visibility
Waste workers are handling and sorting through garbage all hours of the day and night. There are the “sanitary” workers employed by Ramco, the private company in charge of managing all waste streaming out of Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Some of Ramco workers are hired as street sweepers, while others drive or ride the garbage trucks. These workers are somewhat noticeable in their grey one-piece uniforms with reflective grey and red stripes on the chest, forearms, and forelegs. They often wear sun caps with the company’s logos during both morning and night shifts, and less frequently layer their uniform with a reflective safety vest. The company’s uniform policy seems a strict one, as the workers’ personal touches are usually limited to thick turtlenecks worn under the uniform during harsh winter days. Despite the visibility of Ramco in Beirut, Ramco workers only rarely engage with people on the street. When they are seen by the public, Ramco workers are dutifully cleaning away all types of waste. When they take their break, Ramco workers often withdraw from public sight to sit on a pavement curb shielded by a parked car.
Ramco waste containers placed in many neighborhoods, further affirms the presence of the red and grey themed company in the city. Open metal garbage containers painted in either grey, green, or red with the company’s logo engraved on their front, are usually placed in a row on a neighborhood's corners. In harmony with the stripes on the worker’s uniform, each container has a white and a red line horizontally painted on the upper and lower parts of its four sides. The company’s main garbage collection truck is also supposed to be easily noticed. The heavy white truck does not resemble any other garbage collection vehicle moving around the city, as it can lift the containers to empty them. This technology is not available in more familiar pickup trucks recently used by private recycling initiatives collecting sorted waste bags directly from buildings.
Whereas Ramco’s waste workers are expected to be seen (and working) across the urban landscape, others are not as visible. The young Syrian waste pickers who salvage recyclables from the garbage wear plain clothes that are often worn and tattered. (They keep their smart clothes to wear when they are socializing or taking respite from work.) The waste pickers that Elizabeth works with are based at a small scrapyard located in a basement. Although they work informally in scrap, these boys, mostly, ranging from ages 9 to 17 years of age, belong to an organized network of waste workers.
The carts they push around are the main indicator that these boys are waste pickers. While some of them go around without their carts, most prefer to do so as it can sometimes decrease the possibility of getting harassed by security officials. When the boys are noticed by the police, the carts potentially signify the reason these young Syrian boys are wandering the streets. But, this is not always a good thing as carts are sometimes confiscated.
Waste worker bodies are made visible through particular materials such as their clothes and tools. Uniforms can convey an idea of sanitation and cleanliness. Yet uniforms do little to dispel the odours that rise out of steaming waste. The putrid smells emitted by waste often creates a sense of stigma that is attached to waste labour. For waste pickers, salvaged bottles of deodorant and perfume stored inside their scrapyard is one way to deal with these smells. Every so often the scrapyard master’s assistant might spray out some eau de cologne to mask the smell of leaking sewage pipes, fermenting yoghurt in salvaged plastic yoghurt pots or the mustiness of scrap metal.
The assault of the smell of rotting garbage wafting across the city has become central to much of the critique of the inefficiencies of the city’s waste management. For example, the grassroot organization, tul'it rihetkun (You Stink) drew on the politics of smell in order to protest the government corruption and Sukleen’s- the private company hired to manage the city's waste from the mid 90s till 2018- mishandling of waste management in 2015. Whereas Sukleen was heavily criticised, its workers were praised in public discussion for their role in clearing everything up. There were even memes proclaiming that Sukleen workers were more valued members of society than politicians. Yet these moments of praise were short-lived and there have been a number of reports of xenophobism against Sukleen workers who are either Syrian or Bangladeshi. This is also the case for workers who joined the new hired waste management company, Ramco.
The smell of rotting garbage led to a wave of public criticism once again in 2019. Following a scientific inquiry of putrid odors filling areas neighboring Beirut’s coastal landfills, an expert hired by the government, concluded that the smell was caused by rotting garbage. The conclusion sparked a wave of sarcastic comments over social media, since it was interpreted as a failed attempt to explain what is regarded as obvious, at least for those having a properly functioning olfactory system. The Ministry of Environment did not hire the expert only to reveal the source of odors, but also to come up with a practical solution. The proposed solution was not that different from the one used by the scrapyard’s waste pickers. It was only more sophisticated and costly. The expert recommended the use of an innovative industrial deodorant promising to neutralize garbage odors. The expert's explanation and the proposed solution evoked the Arabic proverb: بعد جهد، فسر الماء بالماء that can be translated as, after putting efforts, water was explained as water. In other words, garbage was still garbage.
The general public might not typically speak with a Ramco worker or waste picker on the street. However, their labour is often heard. Immediately following the Beirut explosion, the sound of sweeping glass swept across the city. It lasted throughout the night and for days after. Most of those cleaning the streets were the building natoors (concierges), local grocers, domestic workers, car park attendants and Ramco sweepers. Mounds of glass piled alongside broken furniture and kinds of debris up on the sides of the streets until pick-up trucks removed the debris. Then there is also the noise of the sanitary trucks, or voice of the scrap collector calling out from his truck for tins, cans and batteries.
Sometimes waste workers do make themselves heard as was the case in May
2020 when Bangladeshi waste workers employed by Ramco went on strike in
protest of their meagre salaries. Their salary of $400 no longer being
paid to them dollars but in liras at the pegged rate. As a result of
their strike, garbage was once more left to pile up on the streets. "
Immediately following the Beirut explosion, the sound of sweeping glass swept across the city. It lasted throughout the night and for days after. Most of those cleaning the streets were the building natoors (concierges), local grocers, domestic workers, car park attendants and Ramco sweepers. Mounds of glass piled alongside broken furniture and kinds of debris up on the sides of the streets until pick-up trucks removed the debris.
In this photo-essay, we have tried to show that waste work is an essential form of labour. Waste work is often taken for granted in a way that marginalizes the valuable labour of waste workers. Yet waste workers are a life force of the city, one that is illustrated through the affective forms of their labour. Despite political and social processes that tend to marginalize –– or, even, invisibilize –– the bodies of waste workers, their labour nevertheless is heard throughout the city. Without the interventions of waste workers, city dwellers would be even more assaulted by the putrid smells of garbage than they already are.
Our reflections in this photo-essay is the start of a longer paper mapping out the sensory politics of waste work in Beirut. Elizabeth has been working on the theme since at least 2016, focusing on how the labour of underage waste pickers intersects with sensory knowledge. Rita also started reflecting on waste related issues also since at least 2018, culminating in her MA thesis (under progress) focusing on waste relations in a Beirut neighbourhood.
However, since the uprising of 2019, fieldwork has become fragmented. The Covid-19 pandemic made visits to the scrapyard difficult. The heightened political uncertainties that followed after the Beirut explosion also impacted the way research continues to be conducted. For example, the heavy security and surveillance presence immediately after the explosion occasionally makes it difficult to strike up conversations with waste workers on the street. Security officials might not intervene in our discussions but it is apparent that we are being watched, and at times followed. Given that the explosion was both shocking and disturbing, we are also cognizant of how much distress the event might have been for interlocutors. We are also deeply distressed by the explosion and its aftermath.
We hope that our essay demonstrates the value of conducting long-term ethnographic research and its relevance in enriching public discussion and policy, despite all obstacles that one can face when conducting fieldwork. The opportunity to go out and to speak with waste workers, to follow their itineraries and routines have provided us with rich insights into the people who despite all odds, continue to clean, sort and handle everything we discard.
Fredericks, Rosalind. 2018. Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Saleh, Elizabeth 2021. “Recycling Policies from the Bottom Up: Waste Work in Lebanon” in the Arab Reform Initiative https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/recycling-policies-from-the-bottom-up-waste-work-in-lebanon/ (also available in Arabic in different versions: https://daraj.com/65556/?fbclid
Saleh, Elizabeth & Jarrous, Rita (forthcoming/in progress) Working Through Waste: A Critical Review of the Discussion of Labour in Waste Policies in Lebanon (working paper).
The Daily Star.“Expert says ad Beirut smells coming from trash and sewage”.12 June 2019. https://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2019/Jun-12/485054-expert-says-bad-beirut-smells-coming-from-trash-sewage.ashx