Palestinians in Gaza, living in one of the poorest areas of the Middle East and facing the region’s highest fuel costs, burn plastic to make affordable diesel.
It’s an economical and practical solution in an area blocked by Israel for 15 years, but one that poses serious environmental and health risks, experts say.
Standing in front of rusty metal machines and fuel tanks, Mahmoud al-Kafarneh described how he and his brothers started their plastic recycling project.
“We started experimenting in 2018 to implement the project by searching the internet,” he told AFP at the site in the Jabalia region of northern Gaza.
“We failed a couple of times, after eight months we managed to pump the fuel.”
The still is a series of rough-looking tanks and connecting pipes set up on the dirt outside.
The process begins by burning wood in a kiln under a large mud-covered tank that holds up to 1.5 tons (tons) of shredded plastic. As the plastic melts, the fumes flow through a tube into a water tank, where they cool and drip into containers ready for sale as fuel.
Black-grey smoke emanates from multiple pipes that extend above the stove and plastic container.
Few of the workers wear face masks and gloves while melting sacks of shredded plastic. Her clothes are dyed black.
Kafarneh said no one has had any health problems since work began at the site, which is adjacent to olive trees and away from residential buildings.
“We follow all safety procedures at work,” he said.
But Ahmed Hillis, director of the National Institute for Environment and Development in Gaza, fears an environmental catastrophe from this unregulated industry.
“The method used is rudimentary and very harmful to the workers,” he told AFP news agency, mainly because they inhale toxic fumes.
Burning plastic releases dioxins, mercury and other toxic gases that the United Nations Environment Program says “pose a threat to vegetation, human and animal health.”
Hillis adds another hazard of burning plastic derived from petroleum hydrocarbons.
The tank is “a time bomb because it could explode from the heat,” he says.
In Gaza, where three days of gunfire between Palestinian militants and Israel earlier this month killed at least 49 Palestinians, health risks are outweighed by economic realities.
– ‘Same Quality’ –
Kafarneh, 25, said he would ideally upgrade their kit to a safer tank that runs on electricity.
“But it’s not available because of the Israeli blockade,” he said.
Since 2007, when the Islamist movement Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, Israel has severely restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of the coastal enclave, home to 2.3 million people.
The territory is becoming increasingly impoverished.
Unemployment has reached 47 percent and the average daily wage is about 60 shekels ($18), according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
Gasoline shipped from Israel shot up to 8 shekels ($2.40) a liter in Gaza after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed up global fuel prices before a pullback.
This caused demand for Kafarneh’s fuel to skyrocket, with fishermen and farmers among the key customers.
On the port side of Gaza City, Abd al-Muti al-Habil fills the tank of his fishing boat with a hose.
“We use this diesel because it’s half the price of the Israeli equivalent,” he said.
“There are no downsides. It’s the same quality, it doesn’t affect the engine and it works efficiently.”
The only problem for Habil is the shortage of supplies, with around 10 boats currently using diesel made from recycled plastic.
“Unfortunately, the quantities are not enough. I hardly get 500 liters every two days,” he said.
Habil’s boat burns 900 liters (237 gallons) of fuel during 12 hours at sea, amounts that are prohibitive when he relies solely on imported fuel.
A tank of plastic can produce 1,000 liters (264 gallons) of fuel every 12 to 14 hours, but Kafarneh’s team must wait eight hours for the equipment to cool before they can resume the process.
The quantity produced also depends on the availability of raw materials.
At a sorting facility near the still, six men comb through a towering pile of baskets, bowls, buckets and other plastic waste.
“We get the plastic from workers who collect it from the streets. We buy it from them, then we separate it and grind it through a special machine,” said Imad Hamed, whose hands are stained black from the work.
Because the mill relies on electricity, Hamed said, they are frequently disrupted by Gaza’s chronic power outages.
“We sometimes have to work nights to match the availability of electricity,” he said.
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