“From trash to treasure” is the mantra often cited by upcyclers, or those who use would-be waste to create something new. Upcycling endeavors in Lebanon have multiplied in the last two years with entrepreneurs using materials such as plastic bags, old newspapers and magazines, and cloth to make products such as jewelry, bags, and decorations. While the actual environmental impact of most small-scale initiatives is negligible, where the growing coalition of Lebanese upcyclers say they succeed is in raising awareness of alternative and more environmentally friendly products, promoting waste reduction, and encouraging producers to transition to offering greener products.
Lebanon has an excess of garbage, awareness of which was exacerbated by the 2015 crisis, meaning there is a plethora of materials for existing and potential upcyclers to work with. But this massive excess also makes it harder for an individual to make a substantial impact. World Bank data estimates that average trash production per capita is 1.1 kilogram per day. Taking the World Bank estimate of 6 million people in Lebanon—adding to that an additional 1 million Syrian refugees—that means that there are roughly 7 million people in the country each producing on average 1.1 kilogram of trash per day. This puts the annual garbage production in Lebanon at slightly above 3 million tons per year, of which, approximately 340,785 tons are plastic. A Human Rights Watch report says that only 8 percent of potentially recycled materials in Lebanon are recycled annually; 90 percent of Lebanon’s landfills are stuffed with recyclable materials.
The new EcoSouk Circular Economy Hub in Hamra, opened in February by Joslin Kehdy—founder of Recycle Lebanon, a non-profit organization focused on making social change and encouraging a circular economy—works with upcyclers by providing them with a place to market their trash-turned-treasure. The organization launched in 2015, and has been marketing recycled and upcycled goods since. The EcoSouk is Recycle Lebanon’s first physical marketplace, the initiative having previously sold products primarily through pop-up markets. With products ranging from upcycled bags, jewelry, decor, and clothes, to organic soaps and refillable laundry detergent and dish-washing liquid, the EcoSouk works with over 60 producers. For Kehdy, this endeavor is about raising awareness and identifying new solutions: “Are we saying that upcycling is the one and only solution? No. Are we saying upcycling is part of a solution, and in doing so it raises awareness, changes mindsets, shows alternatives, and is transitionatory? [Yes]. Well, then it’s worth it.” By transitionatory, Kehdy means that these initiatives are not a be-all-end-all solution, but rather a step taken while the world learns to better reduce waste. She sees herself as a voice that encourages a more rapid shift among businesses, restaurants, and hotels who are trying to appeal to an increasingly environmentally conscious consumer base.
Beyond running the EcoSouk, which she refers to as a “toward zero-waste shop,” Kehdy works with schools, businesses, and municipalities as part of Recycle Lebanon to help them identify more environmentally friendly business solutions and products. She also works with the producers in their store to ensure their eco-friendly businesses are as eco-friendly as they say. Part of this includes reviewing upcyclers’ processes to help them eliminate waste and find green materials to use.
In The Loop, a line of jewelry, coasters, lamps, and keychains made of recycled newspapers and magazines created by Jean-Claude Boulos and Bachir Asmar, is one of the brands sold at the EcoSouk that is trying to maximize the greenness of their production cycle. The duo, who have been in business a little over a year, tell Executive that while almost every aspect of their product is environmentally friendly, they have struggled to find a varnish that meets their standards.
A drop in the trash pile
Being 100 percent eco-friendly is hard, and there is often a trade-off between affordability and organic materials. For Boulos and Asmar, they are interested in keeping their prices affordable for consumers. “We want to find places that we can buy recycled or organic material [from], but usually they’re really expensive, and we want to maintain our price range. Right now [our products] are very affordable,” Boulos says. This has meant experimenting with different patterns to see which products can be produced without a negative return on investment, Asmar explains. Where the necklaces take only five minutes to make and sell for LL10,000, and the earrings may take 30 minutes, the coasters, Asmar says, are fairly labor-intensive and have to be sold at a higher price-point of LL20,000. Even though the bulk of their raw materials are free and brought to them by friends and businesses who would otherwise throw away or recycle their paper, they incur other costs from supplementary materials and labor (Asmar accounts for 100 percent of the labor costs currently, and works around two to three hours a day).
Boulos and Asmar have not weighed how much paper they have recycled or brought in, so measuring their environmental impact is impossible, but taken individually, anyone of these endeavors seems futile. Nour Kays, an upcycler who turns plastic bags into upcycled bags of different styles and functions says she has upcycled 11,000 bags since she began counting in 2014. In a four-year period, Kays averaged 2,740 bags upcycled annually. To give credit where credit is due, for one individual, this is no small feat. But taken as a percent of the total garbage in the country, her efforts account for less than one percent.
She makes the bags by layering old bags and then treating them with heat. A beach bag takes 32 plastic bags, and a 6×8 inch clutch takes 16 bags to make. Her products, which include keychains and credit card holders, sell for between $10 and $120. “It might be a bit pricier than other places, but it’s because it’s artisanal, rather than mass-produced,” Kays says. She works with two locals, one tailor, and a technician who helps with the heat treatment process.
But Kays is not the only plastic bag upcycler in Lebanon. At the EcoSouk alone, there are at least two others with similar products (Jellyfish and Waste Studio), making their collective impact slightly larger. Kehdy says that while she started working on Recycle Lebanon in 2015, the number of upcyclers in the country on her radar has doubled since 2017. Naila Saba, program manager at the Nawaya Network, a non-profit working with disadvantaged youth, says the number of upcyclers they have launched doubled from eight in 2017 to 16 in 2018—in 2016, they launched just two. Saba says she personally has seen a sharp rise in the number of upcycling projects pitched to her.
All these innovators have come up with micro-scale solutions to a large-scale problem, and while the metaphorical mountain is steep, as knowledge spreads and more take up upcycling, the potential to have a larger impact grows. Upcycling is still moving from the innovation to early adopter stage in its lifecycle. It is possible, of course, that trends never move beyond the early adopter stage and fail to find popularity with the majority. The jury is still out on upcycling, but as more companies in Lebanon and globally seek to adopt more environmentally conscious business models, the practice offers a way for companies to make use of products that would typically be discarded and raise awareness of alternatives.