Most people probably think it’s not possible to have a love affair with garbage, but Ziad Abichaker would disagree. As a citizen of Beirut, Lebanon, he embraces all of its beauty and shortcomings, including its significant garbage problem. Although he is a structural and environmental engineer by trade, he is also known as “The Garbage King of Beirut,” a title he rather enjoys.
Abichaker is also the founder of Cedar Environmental, an organization that provides all sorts of interesting solutions to the problem of waste management. When he looks at the amount of trash produced in his homeland, he doesn’t feel disgusted, he feels challenged to find an innovative solution. As a result, he has opened 12 waste management plants in the area over the past 10 years, including a zero-waste facility. And he is not ready to stop creating solutions any time soon.
Garbage and Beirut
For the people of Beirut, garbage itself is a subject of taboo. Most people regard the waste management industry as dirty and menial. This means that it is handled mostly by people of low socioeconomic standing in the community. Waste disposal issues are rarely considered by the more upwardly mobile and are instead left to those who have few other options. Abichaker would like to change this perspective by demystifying the waste management world and bringing to light the many ways he (and his community) can make a difference.
The waste problem in Beirut is not to be taken lightly. In some places, it is piled high along the road, where it is an eyesore, causing unpleasant odors and infiltrating the high-rise neighborhoods nearby. People are often disgusted by it and complain to public works, but little changes as a result.
Some See Problems, He Sees Opportunity
Many in the community are fine arguing about who should handle the problem, but few are ready to champion a solution. Fortunately for Beirut, Abichaker views the crisis differently.
As an engineer, he sees an opportunity to take those heaping piles of plastic, rubber, and metal and forge them into something lasting and meaningful, finding ways to benefit from what he calls “a good crisis.” The mountains of trash now facing the people of Beirut may have caused some outrage, but they have also been a real wake up call for everyone in the area – it’s time for a change.
This change could manifest itself in many ways. However, Abichaker sees it quite simply. While some people see trash, he sees materials. And in the 12 plants he operates, he turns those unwanted boxes, bottles, and newspapers into useful products like chairs, paper pulp, eco-board, or even support systems for vertical living walls around the city.
Municipalities can drop their garbage at any of his sites, free of charge, and he will turn that waste into something useful. He takes his zero-waste facility very seriously and spends a considerable amount of time evaluating how all of the solid waste he received can be refashioned into something practical. This is no easy task, but it is one Abichaker believes all municipalities must learn to do if they want to find eco-success in the future.
Converting Skeptics to the Cause
Despite the many challenges Abichaker and his efforts face, the biggest one is disbelief. As he struggles to push this message into the general public, he often comes up against a sentiment of complete bafflement. People wonder whether what he is doing is possible. They have always seen the garbage, but up until now, they have never seen anything else.
Abichaker’s innovative ideas are hard to digest and can inspire feelings of suspicion and doubt among those who don’t understand the scope of his project and vision. That is why he and his many workers are always laboring to create spectacles of beauty – like using discarded tires to house lush, green plants – for the community to see and enjoy.
He wants people to understand the feasibility of his ideas and to enjoy the immense value they hold. They are not just pipe dreams or idealistic pursuits; they are attainable, effective ways to move forward through the waste management problem creatively and successfully.
He prides himself on never partaking in any sort of city-wide corruption in the world of waste (which he says can be pervasive) and always keeps his eye on the prize: saving his beloved city from garbage. And he will never give up no matter how much doubt he faces. The stakes are just too high.