“Good composting is like making good wine” – an environmental engineer revolutionizes waste management in Lebanon.
Ziad Abi Chaker is one of the people who – in his own words – became famous in Lebanon after the 2015 protests, which arose in response to a waste crisis. An environmental engineer and the founder and CEO of Cedar Environmental, a company specialized in waste management, composting and environmental protection, Ziad has since 2015 stood out for his expertise and his frequent interventions in public matters related to waste, recycling, and public space.
Today, Ziad is an omnipresent figure in Lebanon. He is active on different social media channels and often on TV or radio shows, he gives lectures in schools and universities, he sells glasses, jars and vases made of recycled glass at the weekly market Souq al-Tayyeb, he covers open manholes on Beirut’s streets with plastic boards, and he ran in the 2022 parliamentary elections.
In a country in free fall for the last four years, he sets an example with his continuous work, effort, and innovative ideas, combining practical expertise in waste management and environmental protection with a refreshing pragmatic, innovative and creative discourse.
“In love with composting”
Ziad’s interest and involvement in waste management started decades before 2015. By the end of the 1980s, amid the Lebanese civil war, he had left for the United States to study chemical engineering at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
“In Lebanon, I had studied one year of medicine, I hated medicine. When I went to the States, I wanted to do chemical engineering. I did one semester of chemical engineering; I hated chemical engineering. So, I was completely clueless what to do. I was lucky to be at a big university, they had a lot of courses and a lot of majors, so I stumbled upon environmental engineering, I took one course and I got hooked,” he told AMWAJ. Ziad returned to Beirut in 1996, after having earned three engineering degrees.
“I could not find a job in garbage or waste management. Sukleen had its monopoly all over the country. I started building up my company Cedar Environmental and looking for an open door to enter the field of recycling and waste management,” he added.
“Since I returned from the USA, I have done more than 3,000 lectures. If the municipality of some far away village somewhere in Lebanon calls me and tells me there are five people in the village interested in recycling, I take my car and I go there and I make a lecture for five people.”
Three years later, Ziad got his first opportunity in a village close to Nabatiyeh, in the south of Lebanon. “Already when I was in the States, I had fallen in love with composting. So back in Lebanon I had built my own composting machine in my garden. All neighbours and my relatives were giving me their organic waste and I was composting it. And then this municipality approached me, they had a problem with their landfill, it was on constant fire,” he said.
“Even in winter, it was burning. They asked me if I can solve their problem. I said, the only solution is to stop throwing garbage there. If you want to stop throwing garbage, you need to start recycling. So, I built my first composting machine there and they started using it.”
The zero-waste project
Since then, Ziad has been working with many municipalities in Lebanon on different recycling and waste management projects. He vehemently calls for zero-waste projects that include the recycling of single-use plastic and rejection of the popular idea of waste incineration facilities to deal with plastic waste.
In Bayt Mery, a small Lebanese town above Beirut, Cedar Environmental has been operating a zero-waste landfill since 2016, mainly recycling organic waste, plastic, iron, glass, and paper. “The problem of single-use plastic is that its recycling is energy intensive. You need to melt it before you can use it again. If you want to transform a plastic bag into a chair, it is a whole industrial setup. First, I need to reduce the volume of the bag, so I need to shred it, and to shred it, I need energy. Second, I need to melt it, so I need energy again,” he told AMWAJ.
“And then I can use it to make the chair, which again needs energy. We take all our plastic waste to the sorting plant in Bayt Mery, and we sort it there. Whatever can be sold, we sell it, everything else gets transformed into all kinds of things: boards, chairs, benches, boards for vertical farming, structures for solar panels…We have all the infrastructure there to not throw away any plastic.”
For many years, Ziad was cooperating with several municipalities in Lebanon on a recycle bins program. “We used to rent out the bins to the municipalities. Since the municipalities do not have a pickup service, we created the program with the pickup service. We put the bins and every two weeks, we come, pick up the garbage and take them to the factory for sorting and recycling,” he said.
“Today, we only have the glass bins in some locations left. The economic crisis spoiled the project. First, the municipalities are no longer able to pay, it is not a big amount, but they are all broke. And secondly, scavengers destroy the bins to take the garbage and sell it. People got so used to the bins, they still call me and ask me what happened.”
Moreover, Cedar Environmental is the largest compost provider in the country, producing around 125 tons of locally made, organic fertilizer per month, which they sell to local farmers. The company is also the only one in Lebanon that does glass recycling. Under the name “The Green Glass Recycling Initiative” (GGRIL), they work with the last glass blowers in the country, producing glasses, vases, bowls and bottles that Ziad sells at a weekly farmers market in Beirut.
“We give work to the last glass blowers in the country to create these beautiful products and we are the only company in the country that does glass recycling. If you want to realize a zero-waste reality you need to be creative. It is costly, in energy, in labour, and in transportation. But we don’t have a choice,” he told AMWAJ.
Today, Cedar Environmental has 52 employees, working in different sectors of waste management. In Abou Mizan, a 40-minute ride from Beirut in the mountains, the company has a huge factory that serves as the company’s research centre.
Ideas of waste management and recycling are put into practice there: “Any idea I have in my mind, I go up and apply it there. This is where I do the concepts and the machines. Let’s say I receive a ton of torn clothes, what can I do with it? So, I say, let’s make a cardboard. How? We need to mince the clothes, and then we need to do densification. So let us do some research on how to make a machine for densification. So, let’s build this machine. The first option did not work, let’s try a second time. This is what happens in Abou Mizan.”
Fire, stagnation, and frustration – the challenges
In October 2022, an arsonist burnt Ziad’s Abou Mizan factory to the ground. All the machines, the infrastructure and the buildings were destroyed in the blink of an eye, only the structure of the factory remained. Today, approximately seven months after the devastating fire, some 80% of the factory has been rebuilt.
“The day after the fire, we came, and we started cleaning directly. I knew we must build this up again as soon as possible. We cannot break down and hesitate. The company has 52 employees, and the factory is a big and important part of the work we are doing. So, we started rebuilding. It was a big challenge, but it is behind us now. I don’t even think about it anymore,” Ziad said.
Listening to Ziad’s story, the fire seemed like another challenge among many that have hit his work in recent years. The economic crisis forced him to stop many projects due to the difficult financial situation of the clients and the non-existing political will to change anything regarding environmental politics.
“The public is my biggest ally. They give me a lot of feedback and they support me. Awareness increased a lot after the crisis, especially among the younger generation and this is important. This is a new generation that thinks in a different way.”
“The broke municipalities, that is really a challenge. We have all the necessary technology for each municipality, and it is not that expensive. We are talking about maybe 10 USD per household. But they cannot pay it. We are talking about a country that currently lives on a non-existing economy, and nobody has a plan how to revive this economy. So, we have so much potential, be it in the industry, in agriculture, in tourism, or in IT, but there is no plan. So, things just continue like this,” he said.
“And if you think about these costs, that the municipalities or the government cannot pay any more to do basic waste management. If you think logically, this is really stupid. Let me give you an example. The Normandie landfill . The cost of cleaning up the Normandie landfill after the civil war amounted to 100 million USD,” Ziad explains.
“If you want to calculate in the right way, divide these 100 million USD by the quantity of tons of waste that were thrown there. And then we can know how much this cleanup cost exactly. So, every piece of plastic that we just throw into some landfill without thinking about it, at some point we must dig it out again and remove it after like 20 years and it will cost us a lot of money, much more than the cost of a real recycling program right now. But I gave up convincing anyone in this state that this is the logic,” he continues.
The public is my ally
Despite all these challenges, Ziad continues to engage with the public, whether that is through conferences, school talks or through his YouTube channel. He never seems to tire of explaining his work, and the importance of it.
“This is part of the philosophy of my company. To explain to people and discuss with them. I talk a lot to kids in schools and in universities. Since I returned from the USA, I have done more than 3,000 lectures. If the municipality of some far away village somewhere in Lebanon calls me and tells me there are five people in the village interested in recycling, I take my car and I go there and I make a lecture for five people,” he said.
It is his engagement with and relation to the residents in Lebanon that keep Ziad going in these challenging times. It gives him hope that “at some point, the nightmare we are currently going through will be over.”
“The public is my biggest ally. They give me a lot of feedback and they support me. Awareness increased a lot after the crisis, especially among the younger generation and this is important. For example, I visit schools and the kids really want to know what to do with caps or with bottles. This is a new generation that thinks in a different way.”
Currently, Cedar Environmental is working on a waste management project for smaller municipalities (maximum 1,000 households), focusing on decentralized solution to avoid “megaprojects that would currently fail because too many heads are involved”.
In the long run, Ziad is still dreaming big, hoping to revive many of his recycling projects in the near future and to realize a “block chain concept of waste management” in Lebanon, where different local governments or municipality divide the tasks of waste management to make it more cost-, energy- and time efficient.
“We are not the first country that is going through an economic depression, all countries went through this. And they just changed their management. This is our problem; we are not able to change the management of our country at the touch of a button. But everything in life needs long breath and patience, at some point things will change.”