Turning rubbish into opportunity

Lebanese social enterprise Recycle Beirut is using the country’s garbage crisis to help get refugees back on their feet

Few people see opportunity in waste. But in a warehouse in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, pile upon pile of glass bottles, walls of plastic, paper and towers of cardboard represent more than the detritus of modern living. They are the building blocks of a new, dignified life.

Recycle Beirut is a company hoping to overcome two of Lebanon’s big challenges: waste disposal and the refugee crisis. The business launched in 2015 with a simple model: to offer jobs to refugees to collect, sort and package recyclable rubbish, which is then shipped off to recycling centres.

“We wanted to change the refugee crisis from something negative to something positive for the country,” says Kassem Kazak, the firm’s president.

The scale of the challenge is immense. The summer of 2015 saw bags of rubbish pile up throughout the capital’s neighbourhoods and spill onto the streets after the government shut the main landfill site. Residents joined mass protests to decry the eight-month crisis, including over what became known as the 2 million tonne ‘river of trash’ that formed in Jdeideh, a suburb.

The crisis threatens to flare again as waste remains uncollected – a by-product of Lebanon’s complex politics. The unsightly problem is also a health hazard as the waste’s toxins risk leaching into the water table.

“The garbage crisis hasn’t gone away. You can still see waste being burned, or dumped in the forest,” laments Kazak. The problem highlighted just how little rubbish gets reused, he adds: “People don’t have the mentality of recycling; they don’t sort [rubbish] at the source. This is what we focus on.”

The social enterprise employs 17 people to collect, sort and clean non-organic materials, such as wood, cans and plastic. If clients want Recycle Beirut to pick up the waste, it costs $10 for households and $25 for a building. Or, they can drop it off at the warehouse for free. Currently the company sells the sorted waste of some 800 clients to recycling centres across the country. They collect two to three tonnes of rubbish a day, according to Kazak.

All the employees are refugees, either from Syria or Palestine, who make up a staggering proportion of the country’s population. Palestinian refugees account for an estimated 10 per cent of people in Lebanon, according to UNRWA. The six-year conflict in neighbouring Syria added to the strain: more than 1 million people crossed the border, bringing Lebanon’s refugee population to one in four people, says the UN.  

Life is tough. Palestinians are restricted in the jobs they can take, with as many as 20 proscribed professions. Exploitative labour among Syrian refugees has become rife, according to Freedom Fund, a charity dedicated to ending modern slavery. Desperate to support the household, many Syrians work on farms in the Bekaa Valley earning around $5 or $10 a day for women and men, respectively. Child labour is also rampant, with an estimated 60 to 70 per cent of Syrian refugee children working in Lebanon rather than going to school. Children as young as six-years-old have joined the workforce, according to the fund. Peeling garlic for restaurants earns young Syrian girls $1 a day.

“We can create job opportunities from something that was once a headache for the government"Women make up one-third of Recycle Beirut’s employees, mostly sorting waste in the warehouse. There, 7 to 8-hour days net $20 a day in income. The men work as truck drivers, collecting waste from clients or off the streets, earning $25 a day for 8 to 9-hour shifts.

For women such as Razan Mostafa Ghazal, 40, from Salheia in Syria the job has returned a measure of independence.

“Before working with Recycle Beirut I had a very difficult life. There was not enough money to pay rent and other expenses. I was constantly borrowing money from my relatives,” she explains. The work at the warehouse offers “reasonable working hours and good salaries”, she adds, helping to support her four children.

Employing refugees is challenging. Many of the women were from deeply conservative, rural areas, and Recycle Beirut is their first job since losing their husbands to war in Syria. More pressingly, Syrians registered with the UN’s refugee agency are not legally allowed to work. The company’s drivers regularly get stopped and fined by the police.

“We can create job opportunities from something that was once a headache for the government,” says Kazak. “Our reward for this service shouldn’t be a ticket.”

“If you want to change something, you have to do it yourself"Set up as a social business, Recycle Beirut has yet to turn a profit. It has raised some funds from the International Committee of the Red Cross and a meagre $4,000 from a crowdfunding campaign. Kazak believes more donors should come forward because the end result – a cleaner environment – benefits everyone.

The company is keen to expand. It is working with another firm to extend its efforts to organic waste, such as food, by adding composting to the menu. Recycle Beirut is also experimenting with upcycling: “We have started a new project manufacturing tiles from construction waste and recycled glass,” explains Ghazal.

The ultimate goal is to boost recycling in Lebanon – and help people help themselves. “Especially after the garbage crisis, people started to realise they needed to take a step forward,” explains Kazak. “If you want to change something, you have to do it yourself. You can’t wait for someone else to solve the problem.”