Creating Technology for Social Change

When the church says recycle, you recycle

Lebanon has been suffering a garbage crisis for the past nine months, and people are living within piles of garbage – literally – and the ruling elite does not seem that enthusiastic to resolve the situation. The problem reflects the lack of infrastructure in the country and the crippling of local decision making where executive decisions need to pass by a parliament that is more interested in economic gain for its members than the public good. The bright side is that this crisis has created pockets of unprecedented civil society movements that are not dependent on hegemonic powers of political leaders. These initiatives have short life spans due to the lack of experience in undertaking such projects without an obvious leader, but they are interesting indications of a learning process that has to happen in order to reach a sovereign everyday life, a true meaning of citizenship. The following example stands out because it’s an interesting utilization of existing ideologies, official municipal mediators, locality, a desire for change and a keen knowledge of the population.

In Roumieh, a predominantly Christian Lebanese village, the municipality took an interesting route to convincing residents to recycle. In this video report ( – sorry, couldn’t find a subtitled one) the mayor describes the process of getting people to separate their trash readying it for a local recycling initiative. “We thought of the place where people gather the most,” he said, “and the church was the most obvious answer.”

Reflecting on our conversations on various definitions of ideology in Intro to Civic Media, I feel this experiment is interesting to discuss here. The religious structure as a platform to propagate its ideology is not usually used for civic agendas in Lebanon, but rather to reinforce itself. In this case, the municipality organizers were smart enough to mobilize an existing belief system to reach solutions outside the ideologies themselves. The mayor asked priests to talk about the importance of the environment in Sunday sermons and introduced the idea of proactive citizenship / agency when it comes to tackling the nationwide problem. After enforcing the necessity of action and possibility of the idea of recycling (and composting) the mayor describes the steps to educate citizens on day-to-day trash separation:

1. The municipality asked households to acquire a bin for organic waste that would be taken to compost
2. In another ‘yellow’ bag, residents would put waste that could be recycled
3. The garbage collection truck is composed of two teams: one that checks if the separation is correct, and another collects if all is OK
4. If not, the residents are required to re-do their homework, and the truck picks up the trash the next day
5. If residents are persistently failing, the garbage collection team gives them a red card as a warning
6. The last degree is to knock on the door of the failing households, empty the bags and teach them proper separation assuming they don’t know how to do it.

According to the municipality, this process is working. It probably is due to many reasons, not simply because it started in church, a place where religious people suspend their disbelief, but I find that move commendable. There is a predominant air of cynicism stifling progress in Lebanon as if templates of the past are blueprints of the future. That is not true, and will probably best be disproved through creative disruptions of existing ideological infrastructures until the common good is more visible as a proposal than the myth of impossibility.