Cigarette surfboard shames Lebanese smokers

Environmental activists have built a stand-up-paddle board from used cigarette butts to show the cost of trash to Lebanon’s coast and culture.

al-monitor Joslin Kehdy makes the base of a stand-up-paddle board from used cigarettes at Paul Abbas' workshop, Byblos, Lebanon, June 1, 2019. Photo by Al-Monitor/Sam Brennan.

Jun 12, 2019

BEIRUT — “I hate it, it smells like an ashtray,” Paul Abbas, Lebanon’s only surfboard maker, told Al-Monitor as he passed thousands of used cigarette butts meticulously placed to form the base of a stand-up-paddle board at his workshop in Lebanon’s seaside town of Byblos.

Joslin Kehdy, the founder of Recycle Lebanon and co-creator of the ‘cigarette board,’ offered a different opinion while grabbing handfuls of butts from a bag. “I don’t mind it the smell … because I have been picking cigarettes up a lot, people will see me in the street and say ‘I have cigarettes for you,'" he told Al-Monitor. "I actually don’t smoke, which shocks people who ask me 'how can you handle the smell,' but we are handling so much trash in Lebanon that I don’t notice.”

Collected over three months in Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood as part of a Recycle Lebanon initiative, the cigarettes will create a protective and bouyant layer for the board. The project, completed today, is a production of EcoSouk, an environmentally friendly market founded by Kehdy with support from the AUB Neighborhood Initiative and TobaccoFreeAUB.

The board idea has been in their heads since 2016, inspired by the worsening pollution in Lebanon. Kehdy told Al-Monitor, “From our coastal landfills to the sewage going into the sea, to air pollution and incinerators, I felt like I needed to create a symbol to represent them ... We really are throwing away such a rich biodiversity and treasure.”

The pollution on Lebanon’s coast is turning many off surfing, destroying the subculture before it can even get started.

"I know a lot of people who don’t go to the sea. I also know people who are surfers who don’t do it here, and a lot of Lebanese people who have heard about surfing and want to try it, but don’t want to go to the sea because of the trash,” Abbas said, “It is the biggest threat to my job. It is on my mind all the time. The trash problem is getting worse, not better, so imagine in a few years, will people be surfing at all? Will I still be in business? It is my biggest fear.”

Joslin Kehdy carefully lays out cigarette butts.

Kehdy and Abbas hope that the board will also help people face the negative side effects, both internal and external, of smoking.

“If we want to pinpoint one product that is [emblematic] of waste, that impacts human health, water pollution, air pollution and consumer habits, I find the cigarette is that,” Kedhy said, adding, “When you finish smoking you flick the cigarette. … It’s a symbol of a disconnect, that it just goes away, but none of it really goes away, it goes to landfills.”

Abbas added, “If you throw something on the ground people look at you strangely, but if you throw a cigarette on the ground no one cares. … I hope [the board] stops people from smoking, because whatever you do with a cigarette butt is bad.”

With nearly half of the Lebanese population smoking, cigarettes make up a huge proportion of the trash plaguing the country's coast.

The National Beach Clean Up Campaign, a Ministry of Environment initiative, held an event June 9 with nongovernmental organizations and activists including Kehdy that saw hundreds of people take to the coast to clean the shore at some 150 locations.

Jean-Marc Khaiat, the site manager for the campaign at Beirut’s seaside district of Raouche, said, “It is normal not to go to the beach because it’s dirty. … It is a crisis.”

Throughout the day he and nearly 50 others at the site collected 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of trash, saying, “We found everything, we found diapers, crocs the shoes, bread, plastic and of course cigarette butts.”

The cigarette board will be gifted to the American University of Beirut for its support of the project, and Kehdy plans to make more.

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