Wissam at work in his studio in Furn El-Chebbak, Beirut (photo courtesy of @TheKindergartenCollective)
Recycling is certainly not Lebanon’s forte. According to recent statistics, the country creates 4,200 tons of waste per day and, rather than confronting the problem directly, puts off the environmental reckoning by burying all of this trash underground. Last week the country’s waste dilemma became obvious to everyone. As environmental activists blocked access to the Naameh landfill where most of the capital and Mount Lebanon’s trash is brough to, waste piled up across Beirut’s streets.
Later in the week, and as police cracked down on activists, Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt promised to close the Naameh plant by January 17th, 2015. Sukleen, the private firm responsible for sweeping and cleaning the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, resumed its operations.
To get an idea of how little the government is doing, recall a recent interview with Nivine Zarzour, an operation supervisor of Sukleen. In the interview, Zarzour admitted that Lebanon has only 44 recycling bins dotted around the country. Estimates by the Ministry of Environmentconfirm the system’s inefficiency: according to these statistics, the country is only able to recycle a maximum of 6% of its collected waste.
But despite these pessimistic numbers, several ground-up initiatives might show some promise. One of these ventures is Artafif, led by Syrian artist and entrepreneur Wissam Muases. Artafif has been operating in Beirut for nearly two years with some encouraging early signs of success.
In a conversation with NOW, the promoter stated that “according to numbers from the annual report of the alcohol producer corporation of Lebanon, around 52 million bottles are consumed every year in the country, but almost none of those are recycled.” One day, upset by the amount of waste piling up, Muases decided to stop complaining and do something about it. “Nothing revolutionary,” he happily admits, “but at least an effort to make my local reality a bit of a better place.”
Artafif’s creator invested his savings to build a workspace in his own flat. In a small but well-organized space in Furn al-Chebbak, he demonstrated to NOW how he cuts the glass with fire and refines the edges with a diamond. But when asked to share more details of his techniques, he smiled gently: “sorry, not at this time.”
At the end of the process, Almaza bottles turned into large green glasses; wine bottles became dark brown ashtrays; and the more fancy 961 bottles morphed into candle holders. Just outside of the workshop, these creations are neatly piled in wooden crates, ready to be delivered to the next customer.
Yet if enthusiasm about up-cycling is sky-high, for Muases, things are not always as easy as they might appear. “There are a lot of people that bring me empty bottles, but the problem is selling all of the products I create,” he told NOW.
Another actor in Beirut’s growing up-cycling scene is the Green Glass Recycling Initiative (GGRIL). As Ziad Abichaker, founder of the initiative, told NOW, “The group’s mission is fairly straightforward: it tries to tackle Lebanon’s lack of recycling capacity by reviving the glass blowing artisanship.”
This simple idea supported by a simple fact: the only glass-manufacturing plant in Lebanon was destroyed in the 2006 war and has not yet been rebuilt.
Abichaker’s initiative relies on the work of seven glass-blowing artisans based in South Lebanon. In the last two months, he has been able to produce 11,000 pieces. GGRIL’s work differs from Muases’ as the products they create are more ornamental: instead of becoming glasses or ashtrays, the Almaza bottles are transformed into puffy green vases or elegant brown light holders.
When asked if satisfied with what his initiative has achieved so far, Abichaker responded assertively, “What we do at GGRIL is more than an environmental necessity, it’s an absolute necessity, and what we have done up to now is certainly not enough.”
What at first comes off as an exaggeration is in reality not that removed from the truth. Environmental disaster is a real threat in Lebanon. To date, many Lebanese refuse to swim in their own sea because of the high pollution levels caused by sewage and waste being dumped in the water. In Beirut, the air pollution is at times so oppressive that it is hard to breathe. Industrial pollution has ruined vast areas of agricultural land.
These are serious problems that need serious solutions. Muases and Abichaker are doing their share to promote a greener, more sustainable Lebanon and to show that caring about the environment and doing business are not mutually exclusive. This is not enough to change the prevailing environmentally-careless mentality, but it’s certainly a welcome step in the right direction.
And while Sukleen will certainly be able to bring Beirut’s streets back to their normal conditions in a few days, initiatives like Muases and Abichaker’s are exactly what Lebanon needs more of.
Here is a link to a video of the event courtesy of Camille Tahar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CM-VTrGvsmw&feature=youtu.be
This article was written for NOW Lebanon