'No more division of classes': Lebanese NGO repays community through a recyclables exchange programme

Workers sort recyclable materials from trash at a landfill centre near the town of Zahle, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, on November 25, 2010 [Getty Images]
07 September, 2021

For almost two years, Lebanon has been trapped in a state of uncertainty and turmoil, ravaged by an ever-worsening economic meltdown of unparalleled proportions.

With more than half of the Lebanese population now living below the poverty line, families are struggling to make ends meet. Even basics like food or clothing have become increasingly hard to afford, and many are now reliant on the charity of NGOs just to survive.

For NGO Ahla Fadwa founder, Imane Assaf, it became clear that handing out donations and food parcels was not sufficient. Determined to give her countrymen back some of their agency, she pioneered a project with a simple premise, offering aid in exchange for one of Lebanon’s most abundant resources: recyclable trash.

"Lebanon’s waste management has been the subject of much anger for residents. Most waste is simply dumped into landfill sites that are already far past their estimated capacities, if it is collected at all"

“I was becoming worried that we were turning the community into a dependent community,” Assaf tells The New Arab. “I’ve always been interested in recycling and doing something for the environment, so we thought – for people who want food parcels or clothes or anything – we were very happy to continue donating if they could bring us their recyclables.

“It gives them more responsibility if they feel they are giving back and they’re not just coming to pick up things and go,” she explains. “At the same time, it will make them more environmentally aware. They’re doing something with it other than throwing [recyclables] in the garbage.”

Founded in 2014, Ahla Fadwa (The Best Chaos in Arabic) has consistently worked to tackle social problems through projects and events. Following the October revolution of 2019, the severity of Lebanon’s deteriorating situation and the lack of government support forced them to expand their operations.

Ahla Fawda's distribution team sorting through recyclable materials [Robert McKelvey]
Ahla Fawda's distribution team sorting through recyclable materials [Ahla Fawda]

“There is no more division of classes,” Assaf continues. “I’m shocked [by] the people who are from professional backgrounds and are coming asking for food parcels, or clothes. We’ve had people coming for business clothes for job interviews. Everybody is in the same situation. Even those who have money in the bank don’t have access to the bank. We’re all suffering the same way.

“It’s tough because there is no escape,” she adds. “We don’t have access to medicine or proper food. We don’t have access to electricity or water, but we’re still here and we’re still fighting. What keeps us going is that we are still able to help.”

At their distribution centre in the neighbourhood of Hamra, the NGO takes in all manner of recyclable materials – including drink bottles, detergent bottles, metal cans, paper, cartons, books and clothes – in exchange for whatever people may need.

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“The main thing is plastic water bottles because every household has more of these than anything else,” Assaf says. “With the clothes, what we do is we filter them and the clothes that are in really bad shape – and we cannot give them to people out of respect for their dignity – we recycle them [into] oven gloves [or] aprons.

“In our distribution centre, we have a lot of clothes to give away,” she continued, “but the things that go fastest are children’s clothes, so we ask people if they have children’s clothes that they don’t need anymore.”

Despite only having been in operation for two months, the initiative has already garnered massive interest from the local community.

Founder, Imane Assaf
Founder, Imane Assaf [Ahla Fawda]

“It has been an amazing response from people,” says Assaf. “We’re getting a lot of calls that [people] have plastic and [they] don’t know where to take it, so now they are bringing it to us,” she added. “The people who are comfortable tend to call to send us their recyclables, but don’t ask for anything back. It’s expanded beyond our expectations and what we had in mind.”

Using a handmade manual compressor, Ahla Fawda processes the plastic material and then sells it, generating funds that support their food parcel program. They are currently seeking similar arrangements for glass.

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In the past, Lebanon’s waste management has been the subject of much anger for residents. Most waste is simply dumped into landfill sites that are already far past their estimated capacities, if it is collected at all, and there is no official infrastructure for large-scale recycling.

“It is kind of an awareness campaign for cutting down on waste,” explains Assaf. “My issue with recycling companies is they don’t know how to encourage the community to recycle. People just throw. They don’t have an appreciation of what they have. The reason we are succeeding in our recycling operation is because we are giving back to the community.

My dream is to do something on recycling, but on a huge scale,” she tells The New Arab. “We’re at the start. We’re looking at getting another compressor. We’re working on a project in Bourj Hammoud where the local artisans can take our recyclables and do something with them. I’ve already bought a glass cutter to try and experiment.”

Robert McKelvey is a British freelance journalist and cultural writer based in Lebanon.

Follow him on Twitter: @RCMcKelvey