In the nighttime alleys of a Beirut that is increasingly without electricity, scavengers’ flashlights are frequently the sole source of illumination as they sift through debris for scrap to sell.
In Lebanon, which is stuck in one of the world’s greatest financial crises in recent history, even rubbish has become a commodity competed for.
As the ranks of scavengers swell among the severely poor, some spray-paint garbage cans to identify their territory and intimidate anyone who try to approach. Meanwhile, even the wealthiest people are selling their recyclables to earn US dollars rather than the country’s sinking currency.
As a result, the poor have become further destitute and more scared of their futures.
Hoda, a 57-year-old Lebanese woman who has been reduced to scavenging, stated, “There are a lot of impoverished people like me.” “However, few individuals are aware of this. They see what they see, but they don’t see what is hidden.”
The garbage brawl exemplifies Beirut’s gradual decline, which was previously recognized for its entrepreneurial energy, free-wheeling banking sector, and thriving nightlife. Instead of civil war, the calamity in Lebanon over the last two years has been produced by the calcified elite that has dominated the country since the conclusion of the 1975-90 conflict.
More over half of the population lives in abject poverty. The value of the Lebanese pound has plummeted. Withdrawals and transfers have been severely restricted by banks. Daily necessities have become either exorbitant or inaccessible due to hyperinflation, requiring individuals returning from overseas to pack everything from baby food to heart medicine in their baggage.
Trash had been an issue even before the recession, with significant protests in previous years against government negligence that allowed waste to pile up in the streets.
Teenagers now cruise the streets with big plastic bags, rummaging through trash for bits to sell.
The trade was formerly the domain of Syrians fleeing their country’s raging civil conflict.
“Nowadays, we go to the trash to sell what we gather, only to see Lebanese people coming out of their cars to sell their recyclables,” said one Syrian, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “Restaurants and building janitors began sorting rubbish in order to sell it before discarding the remainder.”
Hoda, who only offered her first name to avoid getting into problems with the authorities, resorted to scavenging to maintain her six kids, ranging in age from nine to 22, as well as two grandchildren.
She used to sell veggies from a cart, but the cops seized her goods six times. She sold tissue boxes, but she couldn’t afford them due to the currency crash.
Her son Mohammed then invited her to help him scavenge for trash. Hoda travels to her job site in Beirut’s affluent Hamra district every day and works until 2 a.m., collecting plastics, cans, and whatever else she thinks she can sell or use.
Mohammed collects whatever they have once a week and sells it to merchants that specialize in the trade. Plastic bags cost 20 cents per kilogram (2.2 pounds), other plastics cost 30 cents, and aluminum costs $1 per kilogram. While this may not seem like much, the depreciation of the Lebanese pound means that $1 goes a lot further.
Because of the easy access to cash, scavenging has become much riskier. Mohammed claims he was previously beaten up for entering another scavenger’s zone and gathering trash from a clearly designated receptacle.
“When the dollar began to grow, people couldn’t afford to eat, so they began scavenging and everybody began to have their own bin,” Mohammed explained. “A battle will break out if one is standing by a bin and another scavenger arrives.”
“One of the reasons I wanted my mother to perform this work with me was so that they wouldn’t beat me up if they found my mother with me,” he explained.
At the end of the day, thugs on motorbikes may attack scavengers to take the recyclables they have gathered.
Mohammed stated, “They are willing to kill a person for a plastic bag.”
Hoda collects more than just recyclables. Hoda stores scavenged things that build up on the floor in her gloomy chamber with no windows and no electricity. A gallon of white paint, which she may or may not use in her room. If she ever obtains electricity, she plans to utilize this light bulb.
Hoda’s 16-year-old daughter needed baby diapers, milk, and bottle nipples on a recent day since her 2-month-old baby was having diarrhea. Hoda shook her head and buried her eyes in grief.
“My main wish is to have a home for my family and myself, where I can live as a mother and a human being.” Hoda spoke forward, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I often laugh and joke about with others, but my heart is black on the inside.” I keep my emotions hidden from them. I keep it to myself, tucked away in the recesses of my mind.”
Her most prized possession is a tent she got from demonstrators during the 2019 events in Lebanon. She plans to utilize it in future demonstrations against the country’s authorities.
“The politicians in charge deserve to be burnt because they are the reason we are here,” Hoda remarked. “They eat with gold spoons while we seek the floor for a piece of bread to eat.”