Plastic bottles are gathered for recycling in Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut. Jamal Saidi/Reuters

After trash piled up in the Lebanese capital, residents started taking rubbish into their own hands.

It’s been a little over a year since the beginning of Beirut’s garbage crisis, which saw piles and piles of trash—indeed, an entire river of the stuff—flooding the Lebanese capital and its suburbs. When the government closed the city’s main landfill in July 2015, it had 15 million tons of garbage in it—13 million more than it was meant to. Because the government had not secured a new landfill, trash collection stopped. Mounds of rubbish accumulated in the streets.

The stench and sight of the trash spurred a protest movement, aptly dubbed You Stink. Hassan Chamoun, the movement’s photographer and videographer, tells CityLab that he and his fellow activists would collect garbage around the city—from, say, the teeming Beirut River—and pass it to NGOs to dispose of. “We were saying to the government that we don’t need you, we can take care of things ourselves,” he says.

A You Stink activist gathers trash in the municipality of Bourj Hammoud, northeast of Beirut, in late 2015. (Courtesy Hassan Chamoun)

The crisis, while not resolved, has calmed since the spring of 2016, when the government started using temporary landfills. At the same time, there’s been a shift among Beirut’s residents in their approach to garbage. Some who didn't give their trash a second thought before the crisis are now recycling and even spearheading sorting and disposal initiatives. “Even I began to separate my garbage for recycling after the crisis started,” says Chamoun.

Recycle Beirut, profiled by Al Jazeera, is one such initiative. Co-founder Sam Kazak and his team pass by homes and businesses to gather recyclables before sorting and selling them. The organization collects from over 500 locations and has 16 employees, up from only two a year ago.

Shadia Khater, of Beirut suburb Beit el Chaar, established a center that sorts and ships household recyclables. Her passion for the practice is such that she has blocked neighborhood roads with her car, only allowing people to pass when they agree to recycle. “It was in the early morning,” she told PRI. “They couldn’t go out…to school, to work [until they started sorting].” Khater even got a priest to discuss recycling in one of his sermons.

While such new, local recycling efforts are a positive development, Beirut’s residents still want the government to take better care of the country’s population.

In this protest sign, Lebanese politicians’ bodies consist of garbage bags. “It’s saying we need to recycle,” says the activist Hassan Chamoun, “but these leaders should go in the trash forever.” (Courtesy Hassan Chamoun)

You Stink’s grievances with the government were not only about its handling of garbage but also its general incompetence. Water shortages and power cuts are common in Lebanon, and the country hasn’t had a president since 2014 due to political infighting. The influx of more than one million Syrian refugees—which translates to one in five people in Lebanon—has put a strain on infrastructure as well as the political system, with leaders at odds regarding the war and loyalty to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

“People in Lebanon just want a proper government that will give them dignified lives,” says Chamoun. “Not lives where we live in garbage and lack basic services like electricity and water.”

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