West Bank city sees a future in recycling

NABLUS, West Bank — When Nablus city councilman Hafez Shaheen took office in 2005, he struggled to maintain basic urban functions like electricity and water as he filled in for the mayor, who was under arrest in Israel.

Five years later, with the mayor back in office and Nablus enjoying the relative prosperity unfolding across the West Bank, Shaheen aims to make his city a pioneer in recycling plastics, metals and cardboard.

"Nablus is paying $4 million a year for transporting and dumping garbage," said Shaheen. It's about 8 percent of the annual budget for the ancient city of 126,000.

Shaheen got his Ph.D in water management in Germany. While in Germany, Shaheen saw people separating their garbage into glass, plastic and cardboard. "I want to implement the programs I saw in Europe," he said.

Three years ago, Nablus began a recycling pilot east of the city. There, on a Tuesday in May, a bulldozer shoved dripping trash into a rotating cylinder called a screener, which separates out organic waste. Piles of boxes, broken plastic chairs and a smaller heap of metal waited to be picked up for sale to Palestinian and Israeli companies.

The project processes around 160 tons of garbage a day. A third is recycled; the rest goes to a landfill near Jenin, to the north, or gets dumped illegally on site, Shaheen said. Locals have been complaining about the smell, he said.

Nablus's bid to recycle reflects a growing green awareness among Palestinians. For 10 years, Nadir Al-Khatib has directed the Bethlehem office of the international Friends of the Earth Middle East. He said environmental awareness began rising during the Oslo negotiations of the mid-1990s, when the Israelis and Palestinians negotiated on water and other ecological issues.

"Suffering from water pollution and the water shortages makes the environment one of the main issues [for Palestinians]," he said. "Maybe people do not define it as the environment, but from the way they talk it is a pure environmental issue."

The problem with this approach, however, is damage people do not see. Conservation biologist Sami Backleh, 30, noticed this first hand while scouting vultures in the desert around the southern city of Hebron.

"Two shepherd kids came and asked me what I was doing," said Backleh, from East Jerusalem. "When I told them the vultures could be biodiversity markers, the shepherds said 'instead of watching birds, why don't you get us shelter and food?'"

Backleh worries that without action to preserve water quality, biodiversity and disappearing agriculture, "we will buy our food, our water, our experience and our expertise. We will be a dependent nation."

He is launching a solar power cooperative. Other Palestinians look to fair trade cooperatives and olive tree planting to protect the rich flora and fauna of the West Bank.

Environmental engineer Muhammad Al-Ihmaidi's plan, meantime, is far bigger. He hopes to replace the pilot recycling in Nablus with a larger site that will process up to 80 percent of the city's waste, far enough away to prevent bad odors.

Al-Ihmaidi had dreamed of starting recycling in Palestine for 20 years when he was tapped by the Ramallah-based private investment company Padico to find a green venture. Earlier, he headed the joint Israeli-Palestinian environmental negotiations committee during the Oslo peace process, and was a founding member of the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority. Al-Ihmaidi has already bought a new screening machine, which is sitting in Nablus.

But he has encountered a raft of obstacles. It took Al-Ihmaidi seven months to find a site for his plant that was not in Area C, the mostly rural 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli control. He found a site 6 miles east of Nablus, but the locals refused to allow the project. Now he is looking for a new site outside of Area C but far enough from a city. Al-Ihmaidi is also waiting for Palestinian planning permission, and has enough faith in the project that he has more equipment on its way from Germany.

The plant will cost about $3.8 million to build and another $1 million annually to run, Al-Ihmaidi said. It should cut transportation and landfill costs for Nablus. He hopes to be accepting garbage by July.

Most recycling at present starts with scavengers who pick metal out of dumpsters. The new plant will produce large enough quantities to sell to industry, Al-Ihmaidi said. Farmers in the Jordan Valley can use compost. Bead manufacturers in Hebron could buy glass. And plastics and cardboard could go to factories in Nablus.

On a drive through the city, Al-Ihmaidi reads the streetside waste as a mark of potential. "Look at these tires," he said. "Just sitting there doing nothing. We have thought of taking them to a shredding press. The rubber in it can be remanufactured into tiles." 

Al-Ihmaidi says he plans to sell only to Palestinians, even though he has been contacted by Israelis. Still, he said he toured the northern Israeli city of Afula for ideas on how to manage his own recycling program.

"We're looking to see if there is any sort of mistake that we should learn from," he said, "like safety measures for workers or how far the smell can go."

Once the Nablus plant is operating, he hopes to open two more, in Ramallah and Hebron.

Beyond getting old tires and rotting cardboard off the street, recycling could give Nablus a new green image. The city was known as a hotbed of terrorism during the Second Intifada. Now, in the quaint Old City, donkeys munch on hay against walls riddled with bullet holes.

"Maybe I'll work with the recycling company," said Ashraf Jaber, 23, a student and actor in Nablus. "If anyone comes from outside from America or Europe, when they see we are recycling plastic and glass, they will think we don't just eat and drink and throw the bottle in the street."

City councilman Shaheen said the recycling project in the east of the city was one of several major infrastructure initiatives under way. German banks are funding a rehabilitation of the city's leaky water system, along with a wastewater treatment plant. Norway and the World Bank are bankrolling an electricity efficiency project. He is looking for foreign funding for the recycling as well.

"The wheel of the economy is moving again in Nablus city" said Shaheen. "The economic improvement began a while ago, but the wheel didn’t start to move. Now the market is full and people are buying things … We are optimistic in this regard and we hope this will continue."