Waste Management in Rafah: Gaza’s First Ever Recycling Plant

Women wearing luminous orange vests and huge red rubber gloves sort through the cans and plastic bags passing by on the conveyor belt before them. The masks that cover their faces protect them from the hazardous gas released from the rubbish, as well as the stench. Outside, their colleagues bring waste from a nearby refugee camp by wheelbarrow and horse and cart to the first ever recycling plant in the Gaza Strip.

The recently opened UNRWA recycling factory, donated by Japan, is located in Rafah, a city close to Gaza’s border with Egypt. It could not have arrived at a better time. With nowhere else to go, rubbish has been piling up 30 metres high in Sofa, a disposal site to the east of Rafah. Not only did mosquitoes breed around the dump but the rubbish also released methane gas, which when mixed with oxygen can catch fire.

Many children have developed breathing problems from the waste that now pollutes the air, a consequence of burning it. Without the real means to dispose of the rubbish, chemicals and hazardous substances penetrate groundwater (Palestinian’s natural aquifer for drinking water), and the soil they use for growing vegetables. No treatment plants means that unprocessed sewage pours into the sea, only to drift straight back onto Gaza’s beaches.

Part of the waste problem stems from the 2008-2009 invasion when the Israeli army devastated sewage plants and waste water treatment centres. But there is also a ban on construction materials entering Gaza (“a security risk,” claims Israel) so the damage from the brutal assault cannot be rectified. That’s why when Professor Samir al-Afifi set up the new recycling initiative parts for the machines were brought through the tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza border.

Since the Israeli siege on Gaza tightened in 2007, goods going in and out of the Strip are controlled and Gazans have relied heavily on this tunnel economy. Despite the danger that surrounds their use – they often collapse and Israeli aircraft bomb them – they are the only open connection they have with the outside world, a lifeline for the supply of gas, food and medicine.

If the Israeli government were to remove its blockade, repairs and construction could take place on water and sewage systems improving the lives of the 1.6 million people in Gaza. Nevertheless, the new plant does offer a glimmer of hope from within. The food waste that is passing by on the belts of the new recycling plant will be converted into organic fertiliser and given to farmers at no charge.

Not only does the initiative intend to combat the waste problem in Rafah but it also provides work for impoverished women in the area. The 26 women on the factory floor work for three weeks and are paid $350. After their three-week contract is up, another 26 women take their place. Nearly 50 per cent of women are unemployed in the Gaza Strip and so the initiative provides an opportunity for at least some of them.

Around 1,000 tons of rubbish ends up on land throughout Gaza every day; Al-Afifi’s recycling plant processes around 50 tons daily. The next step is to build similar projects, all across Gaza.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Palestine and Israel