Talking To: Sukleen Managing Director Mohamed Ali Hodeib

Anyone who has been to Beirut in the last decade has seen a Sukleen worker. Dressed in green jump suits and pulling their ever-present garbage bins, they keep the city and Mount Lebanon clean. However, much of their indispensable work remains invisible. To find out more, NOW went to Sukleen’s  headquarters in Beirut’s Karantina neighborhood, where the company’s managing director, Mohamed Ali Hodeib, answered our questions about Sukleen’s origins, its work, its green and white recycling domes that have dotted the city as of late, and its ubiquitous workers. 
Where does the name Sukleen come from?

Mohamed Ali Hodeib: Sukleen’s brand name is composed of two parts. Our chairman’s family name is Sukkar, hence the first part of the name, while “kleen” is for what we do.

How long have you been working for Sukleen?

It’s been five years. First I was a project manager, then I became a Sukleen director and then I became the managing director. Basically, I oversee all operations for the different companies [under the umbrella of Averda]. We have Sukleen, which does waste collection; Sukomi, which is the waste treatment plants and landfill. The landfill is in the region called Naameh. The government gave us permission.
Can you give us give us a short history of how Sukleen was founded?

Hodeib: Sukleen was founded in 1994 to handle waste management in the Beirut and Mt. Lebanon regions. After the war, there was a necessity to have a waste management system to handle waste properly, so Mr. Maysarah Sukkar founded the company with private funds. But Sukleen is a contract company of the government, so it’s a private company doing public services, funded by the government. So it’s like a joint venture. 
How much waste does an individual in Lebanon produce per day?
The daily average is around 2,200 tons. Generally, I think the international rule of thumb is thought that a person produces 1kg of waste per day. In Lebanon, I believe it’s around that.

Do you think Lebanese people are responsible in terms of how they deal with their trash?

Hodeib: We generally do not like to name call the Lebanese. But to be honest, we lack environmental legislation, attitude and behavior. There definitely is a lack of legislation. Because for a long time, the country had more important and critical priorities than waste management. The focus in this country was for a long time more about basic needs like security and political needs. 
What needs to be done?

Hodeib: It’s a complete chain between our company’s role in social responsibility and environmental awareness campaigns, from one side, and the rules and regulations from the government on the other side. Also it’s the role of local communities, schools, and universities. So I think whenever Lebanon will solve this political and economic crisis, there will be more time to focus on these issues. But meanwhile we are doing our part, even if we are not finding great results. And environmental awareness is beyond the scope of our work.
Nonetheless, kids get to come to Sukleen and watch movies that show the whole waste flow: the collection, the waste treatment and the landfill. So we’re constantly trying to raise awareness.

There does not seem to be enough trash bins on the street. Why is this? If there were more, do you think people would use them and litter less, or would they still litter and rely on the Sukleen workers to pick it up?

Hodeib: There might not be enough trash bins, but you do not see trash on the streets. This means Sukleen is doing their job very well, because it’s a little complicated to understand the Lebanese situation. It’s not easy to put trash bins everywhere... [In asking whether people will change attitudes if there are more trash bins,] you’re not tackling the issue from the right angle. It’s not enough to deal with the consequences and not the sources, and just because there are more trash bins, does not guarantee that people’s behavior will change.

Could you tell us about Sukleen’s recycling program? I heard that you pick up paper from offices?

Hodeib: Not only paper. We usually pick up different kinds of recyclable material, including glass, paper, cans and plastic. We have been doing this for the last five years. So today, we are proud of having around 750 participants in our recycling program. Institutions from the public and private sectors, such as schools, universities, companies are participating. Once the recyclables are collected, they are sent into the waste treatment plants. The paper is sent to a recycling company. Plastic is treated. It’s shredded and then sent to a plastic recycling company. Every kind of material is treated in a different way. I think in terms of the plastics, we handle them very well. The paper and glass need special treatment facilities that we don’t have, so we send them to other companies.

There are recycling domes all over the city and elsewhere, but rumor has it that the recycled content actually goes directly into the dump truck with other trash. Is this true? How are recyclables put into the domes dealt with?

Hodeib: The contents of the dome are, in fact, picked up by separate trucks. I think in Europe, the Germans are the best at extracting their recyclables. We do take them in separate fleets and they are 100% recycled. The problem is actually that some people shove regular trash into the bells. And this happens often.

Why are there only two domes? Elsewhere, there are at least four or five divisions when it comes to recycling.

Hodeib: We are very pragmatic people. We want to start with the basics.... We divide recyclables into two and it’s still very difficult to convince people. 
Sukleen workers sweeping the streets seem exclusively foreign, or, at most, overseen by a Lebanese person. Where do they come from? Why don’t Lebanese people take jobs as Sukleen workers?

Hodeib: We do have Lebanese. We have Indians. We have Syrians. I think you have Lebanese who are the majority of the workers, around half of the total. Indians and Syrians are about a quarter each. Drivers are all Lebanese. And all the employees inside the company are Lebanese. We do not have Indians as company workers because you already have so much Lebanese talent at all levels. So far, we don’t have the need to bring in foreigners. 
If you have so much talent, then why do you hire Indians and Syrians as workers?

Hodeib: Usually in all utilities companies in the region, you can find the same thing. It’s difficult, especially in countries like Lebanon, to have nationals working on the streets, because it’s not the kind of job that is considered a decent job in this culture. Sukleen did a great job changing this perception, and the result is that we now have 300 to 400 Lebanese workers [in the street]. Especially after the July War in Lebanon, when the board of directors [of Sukleen, including myself], went to the streets to clean, this created huge publicity, and greatly altered people’s perception of the cleaning job. Not that much, but maybe a little bit. We felt it in terms of the number of applications we got [for street laborer position].

Where do these workers live, and do they come under the labor law, i.e., do they have  vacation rights, minimum wage and Sundays off? Do the Indian workers keep their passports?

Hodeib: It’s more of a family thing. The workers are all taken care of. They have their own quarters in different parts of Beirut. They have their suits washed and ironed on a daily basis. They have three course meals for free. In special events, they have whatever meals they want. For example, when Indians have certain events, there will be full catering supported by the company. When it comes to taking care of “our own,” it’s like we’re providing a very comfortable working environment. They choose their own menu... I mean, I’ve personally gone into cleaning during the July War,  it is a very difficult job. Once you think you’re done, you’re never actually done, and you see some guy passing by, looking at you and then throwing trash outside the trash bin.
Salaries are paid on time and they have their vacations. There are hygiene facilities for them, they have their own barber shops. It depends on the operational factor, but everyone has a day off. So which day, it depends. The Lebanese are definitely under the labor law. For the Syrian workers, they work more on a daily basis. But at the end of the day, all of them get paid the same. For the foreigners, Indians are also like the Lebanese. They have salary, they have their vacations, and we pay for their tickets to India. We even provide them with extra services. We pride ourselves of taking care of our workers. We like to consider ourselves a people company more than a waste management company. When we say we take care of, we mean everything. That means we take care of their sleeping, eating, health, vacations, sometimes, families... We’re asking these guys to pick up cigarette butts, and it’s a 24/7 operations. In addition, clean streets are a sign of development. [It is not a prestigious job like] working for the Red Cross. What makes it easier is that Sukleen is a flat organization. We also have literacy programs, including English programs, and we do it as part of the community.
As for the passport, it is company policy not to go into such detail.

  • Leopoldine

    Hello,,, I, as most of Lebanese, appreciate your great effort to keep our city clean as possible. But the great problem is in the retarded mentality of our people,,, You should be in the first plane in the educational & awareness program directed to our people for recycling. I think any Lebanese, even if completely ignorant, knows exactly how to respect the LAW in any western country (Europe, USA,,,) but nobody, unfortunately even most of educated persons, likes to do a minimal effort to help fighting the pollution...I beleive that it's the PEOPLE who make the government and not the government who makes the people,,, This is why we are still considered, and we'll continue to be, a developing country. Probably you did already educational programs (I am not old enough to remember), like visiting residences etc,,, but our people needs a great effort to make this plan happens...

    February 2, 2015

  • Dr. Mouna Bitar

    I am still awaiting a date to be set by you to come and pick up our mountain of recyclables in jal-el-bib, el hai aali , not far from curves jal el bid (...) thanks

    July 3, 2012

  • ibrahim saadeh

    dear mr hodeib we are proud of you and your great company, i have a litle complaine about some employees working in your company, i personnaly know that your company is the best in all arabic country, you have to know that Mr. charbel Dib is the badness persone working to sukleen this men cannot have the carizma for driving a team, we will inform you later about the details that we have to remain you how is bad

    March 30, 2012

  • Rami

    The question isn’t if sukleen is doing a good job, rather at what cost? Besides being one of the most expensive waste services in the world, the operation is opaque and doesn’t involve the consent of any municipality. The fact that it was founded in 1994, just months before the signature of an unbalanced ‘urgency plan for the waste management of the greater Beirut area’ with the Lebanese government, gives an idea about the background of such an organization. In 2006, the agreement was renewed for 3 years with the exact same urgency closes of 1994. The clauses of the contract make it very difficult for the Lebanese government to break the deal ....

    June 11, 2009