BEIRUT — “The older generation doesn’t have much hope [in environmentally friendly change]. The younger generation, however, is trying to make that happen,” Joslin Kehdy, the founder of Recycle Lebanon, told Al-Monitor. “But I don’t think hope alone is going to save us — a market will,” she added.
That market is now open. Earlier this month, Recycle Lebanon, a nongovernmental organization founded to find sustainable and ecofriendly solutions to the garbage crisis in Lebanon, opened the country’s first permanent zero-waste store, EcoSouk, as part of its BalaPlastic movement, which advocates reduction of plastic waste.
“We need to show there is a way that avoids the incinerator. … We can protest, we need that, but we also have to have physical redesigns,” Kehdy, in her early 30s, said.
Located in the bustling Harma neighborhood of Beirut, EcoSouk, a hub for raising awareness around waste reduction, sells a wide variety of ecofriendly products including upcycled jewelry, organic honey and satchels made from discarded plastic bags.
Recycle Lebanon was established during the 2015 trash crisis, following the closure of the controversial Naameh landfill, a temporary dump kept open past its closure date. Protests subsided as temporary landfills were opened in Beirut. However, these too are reaching capacity, and the Lebanese government has floated the idea of opening garbage incinerators to solve this issue, despite warnings from experts about the environmental and health risks. Kehdy explained that during the 2015 protests, she left her job and started Recycle Lebanon in order to offer a platform to facilitate a zero-waste market.
According to Kehdy, EcoSouk is the key to addressing this issue, through its promotion of a circular economy — one in which resources are used for as long as possible — which she said is already present in Lebanon.
“A circular economy is different from a take, take, throw away economy,” Kehdy said. “I was raised on a farm [in Lebanon]. We didn’t throw away food; we would use it on the land, feed it to the chickens, preserve it. You can still see [used] clothes being mend in [Beirut’s] Bourj Hammoud district.”
She added, “If we had support from the government and industry, we could transition much quicker to a circular economy because it's already a traditional way of living.”
Part of this new system involves including as many people as possible. “We are not here telling you to buy things, we want people to think what they can do and whom they can collaborate with [for a circular economy],” Kehdy said. “I don’t want to [only have] customers who have the luxury to transition to green [living]. This is why we give out free tree [saplings at EcoSouk]."
Papyrus, a project that aims to convert waste paper into gifts and whose mission is in line with Kehdy’s goal to create an inclusive environmental movement, also sells its products at EcoSouk. Through this project, women in south Lebanon learn how to make and sell recycled products.
Dahlia Barakat, who works at Papyrus, told Al-Monitor, “We train women for six months to [recycle] paper, then we create from this paper items that can be sold, such as notebooks, baskets and pencils.”
Barakat, 25, became involved in the environmental movement after the 2015 trash crisis. “It’s our way to deal with , we shifted our attention away from the usual market [and career expectations] to something we are passionate about, because we have this crisis now.”
Barakat added, “I am a graphic designer. I could work with brands, but I choose to work on something that makes me feel like I'm more conscious about what I'm doing. I think a lot of young people have this feeling too.”
While the 2015 protests inspired many young activists to become involved in creating sustainable products, others were attracted to recycling and sustainability for different reasons.
Basil Abi-Hanna, a 31-year-old Lebanese knife-maker, made sustainable products long before the 2015 protests. “As long as I can remember, I have been making things … even if it is something I could purchase. It has been a long journey, not a sudden change.”
However, Abi-Hanna noticed that his hobby has become more important over the past half decade. “It is interesting to see that it fits this new, growing movement, which is good for everyone.”
Abi-Hanna sells custom-made recycled knifes at EcoSouk, with wood salvaged from old sail boats, skateboards and even an old barn. The steel used for the blade comes from the suspension of a Land Rover, explained Abi-Hanna.
Abi-Hanna said, “I think a lot of people used to [recycle] but now it is becoming more accessible and more available on the market. … Whereas half a decade ago people wouldn’t see this as something trendy or something interesting.”
Customers are interested in the products EcoSouk offers. Bridget, a foreign student studying Ecosystem Management at the American University of Beirut, told Al-Monitor, “[EcoSouk] is very positive. I think Lebanon has a really big issue with plastic and I have been looking for a zero-waste store, somewhere [that does not use] plastic packaging. So I think there is a really bright future and I hope it will catch on very soon.”
Kehdy and those selling their wares at EcoSouk are seeking to be part of this future, with a spate of new inventions and zero-waste products planning to be introduced over the coming years.
Through collaborations with international partners and local initiatives, Recycle Lebanon is developing products, such as diapers made from sugar and Styrofoam made from mushrooms, to be sold in Lebanon. “Our next step is to redesign products, what goes inside an incinerator and what is the alternative,” Kehdy noted.
She said that these products should also be available in every store, not just EcoSouk. “I want to have a physical space everywhere. I want to have these [items] at both organic shops and gas stations. … I want to make green, toxic-free and plastic-free products accessible. [I want us] working with our hands, together,” Kehdy concluded.