In the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion, armies of volunteers and activists have been working around the clock to clear the wreckage from their devastated neighborhoods, including an estimated 5,000 tons of window glass destroyed by the force of the massive blasts.
One initiative has sought to make sure all this glass doesn’t end up in Lebanon’s already overflowing landfills in the country with notoriously poor waste management infrastructure that just five years ago suffered a garbage crisis.
The Green Glass Recycling Initiative Lebanon (GGRIL) has been working together with glass factories in the northern city of Tripoli and with the Khalifeh Brothers’ factory in Sarafand south of Beirut, to create new ranges of traditional Lebanese glassware, turning these remnants of shock and horror into something beautiful and nostalgic.
GGRIL has provided artisanal glassblowers with cleaned glass recovered from damaged and the craftsmen have remolded the shards into handcrafted water jugs, carafes and cups to commemorate the blast, as well as bottles for local businesses, using traditional methods that go back millennia.
Ziad Abi Chaker, the CEO of Cedar Environmental LLC – one of the founding institutions of GGRIL – said the project was a collective effort.
“I’m working with some of the NGOs on the ground that mobilized after the blast and I had arranged to meet with the glass factories in Tripoli as well, to see what kind of shattered glass they can work with,” Abi Chaker told Al Arabiya English.
So far, around 80 tons of shattered glass has been recycled. Unfortunately, much of the material is simply too contaminated to be used.
“The glass that fell on the streets got mixed with debris and stones and sand, and it has become too difficult to clean, so we are using all the glass that fell inside,” said Abi Chaker.
Traditional glassblowing is something of a dying art in Lebanon. The Khalifeh family, long time partners of Abi Chaker, claim to be among the last traditional glassblowers in the country, and one of few keeping the craft alive in the region.
“This is a Phoenician tradition,” said Abi Chaker. “They perfected the glassblowing technique, and it was done in this land thousands of years ago. [The Khalifehs] can trace their glassblowing ancestry to 250 years.”
The area now known as Lebanon first appeared in recorded history around 4,000 BC as a group of coastal cities inhabited by a Semitic people whom the ancient Greeks called “Phoenicians” because of the purple (phoinikies) dyes they sold.
During the 2006 war with Israel, Lebanon’s only green glass manufacturing and recycling plant was completely destroyed by bombing, and was never been rebuilt. Since then, over 70 million glass bottles a year have been sent to landfills or uncontrolled dumps, an issue that GGRIL was originally founded to address back in 2012.
“It had two objectives,” explained Abi Chaker. “One part was to divert the green glass from the landfills, but the second, equal part was to create more work opportunities for the last glassblowers of the country.
“Now, we widened the scope to take all the shattered glass of the windows. It is a kind of glass that would go into their ovens and they would be able to work with it, no problems.”
Waste management is an ongoing problem
Waste management has been a serious issue in Lebanon for decades now, most famously peaking in 2015 when waste company Sukleen suspended collection following the closure of the controversial Naameh landfill, resulting in piles of rubbish filling the streets and sparking massive demonstrations and the “You Stink” movement.
The Naameh landfill was originally set to receive 2 million tons of waste before it was scheduled to close in 2004, but the date was repeatedly postponed by successive governments. By the time it was finally closed, the site had taken over 15 million tons of waste.
“We have a waste crisis on our hands. It’s an endemic problem due to corruption, political cronyism – you name it,” said Abi Chaker. “It’s basically linked to all of the other major issues that Lebanon suffers from – like power [and] telecommunications – where politicians want to monopolize the sector.”
While efforts like those of Cedar Environmental and GGRIL provide much-needed alternatives to keep the ongoing crisis at bay, more needs to be done. While 85 percent of Lebanon’s waste goes to landfills, researchers from the American University of Beirut have found that only around 12 percent of that waste cannot be composted or recycled and needs to be landfilled.
“We are in a political deadlock now,” said Abi Chaker. “We’ll see what happens after the blast, and what political changes will be ushered onto the scene.”