BEIRUT: Looking at the sleek displays of glass jars, vases and lamps, it is hard to imagine that they were once parts of beer bottles. It’s even harder to imagine that they reached the shelves, given that Lebanon’s only glass manufacturing plant has been out of commission since Israel bombed it in the July 2006 war.But despite all of the obstacles – or perhaps because these became an incentive to do something creative – environmental engineer Ziad Abichaker decided to bring together glass artisans, beer companies and paper manufacturers to create original works of recycled art from the shattered remains of used beer bottles. At the same time he is giving Lebanon’s last remaining glassmaker the potential for a second lease on life.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” Abichaker says, referring to his environmental engineering experience that has enabled him to help small businesses to function sustainably. He points to an artful collection of the glass goods on display at Plan Bey on the main street of Mar Mikhael, one of two locations in Beirut where the artwork is being shown, the other being the co-working space Alt City on Hamra Street.
The waste management expert, who returned to Lebanon in the mid-1990s after earning three degrees in engineering in the United States, got straight to work in the poverty-stricken south – just north of where the Israeli-occupying force was located before their withdrawal in 2000. He undertook to revitalize the country’s ailing infrastructure along with Lebanon’s only glass manufacturing plant through recycling programs aimed at reducing the waste produced by beer and winemakers.
“We sold everything we recycled, sending it all to the glass manufacturer,” recalls Abichaker, whose company Cedar Environmental has built a total of 10 recycling plants in the south.
Then in 2006, Israel bombed the plant and destroyed one of the few means of recycling in Lebanon, where solid infrastructure is severely lacking. Since then, the country’s beer and wine manufacturers have been importing empty bottles, while filling landfills with their broken glass in the absence of local recycling facilities.
Then in 2010, Abichaker began developing the Green Glass Recycling Initiative for Lebanon – officially launched last month – an ambitious plan to bring back glass made from recycled material. As the project began to take shape about a year on, he began talks with Hussein Khalife, Lebanon’s last glassblower who had planned to close his shop in Sarafand, where he and his family have been working as artisans for centuries. The slow pace of business in a seldom-visited town as well as a lack of government protection for handicrafts has meant a steady decline in business for the last vestige of Lebanon’s once-thriving glassblowing industry.
“If I’m able to return to glassblowing with this project, then I’ll go back to business,” says Khalife, who adds he stopped work three months ago amid heavy losses but recently made a small sample of pieces in coordination with Abichaker.
Once he got the glassblower on board, assuring him that there might be a chance for him to make a sustainable living from his work again, the next challenge was to create the glass in small enough pieces so that it could efficiently be transported to its destination.
Abichaker and his team created a “chipping line” to compress the chips of glass. He was then able to attract the interest of local paper manufacturers, who agreed to produce $2,000 worth of boxes free of charge and give the business the chance to get on its feet, a vote of confidence that the plant could turn a profit and be self-sustaining as it had been until almost 10 years ago.
The environmental engineer even helped the traditional glassblower with some “funky designs” – simple and sleek styles that he thought would appeal to younger as well as foreign customers with a taste for minimalist looks – in addition to some of the more ornate pieces that he has been doing for years.
The recent order of 50 pieces by a Swiss customer was a sign that the strategy might be paying off. Given Lebanon’s long history of glassblowing, Abichaker sees a potential for significant foreign exports.
The engineer’s dedication to innovative ways to create viable products from waste earned him the Arab Innovator of the Year Award from the New York-based NGO Synergos, giving him $25,000, which he then put into the project.
He acknowledges that his decision to return to Lebanon and develop a sophisticated recycling infrastructure when there is little government support for such measures is unusual. But for him the other option – becoming a mere armchair observer as the environmental situation in his home worsened – was unfathomable.
“With an inept and bankrupt government, I either join the band of naysayers or I do something,” he says. “It’s amazing when you put yourself out there for a movement, help starts pouring in from all around.”
Indeed, David Munir Nabti, founder of AltCity, where some of the works are being displayed, and which itself is working toward producing zero waste, was eager to display the glass products.
“I like the concept of upcycling, applying creativity to doing something ethical,” he says. “It should be a vision in Lebanon to buy recycled glass rather than importing glass.”
To view the collection of recycled glass from GGRIL, visit AltCity on Hamra Street or Plan Bey in Mar Mikhael. AltCity can be reached at 01-742-582. Plan Bey can be reached at 01-44-110.