BEIRUT: Ziad Abichaker’s passion in life is your garbage. For 20 years the environmental and industrial engineer has been dedicated to conceptualizing, designing and developing waste management systems to achieve a zero waste objective.
An objective he says, “we are very close to reaching.”
Abichaker founded Cedar Environmental to make some pocket money while in his second year of engineering school at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He brought the company home to Lebanon in 1996.
Now, 15 years later, Cedar Environmental boasts 10 waste treatment plants across Lebanon, has the capacity to process 46,000 tons of waste annually, produces Vieverte, an organically certified compost, and is concluding the research and development stage of Eco-Board, a durable material made entirely from recycled plastic bags. When this product goes on the market, almost all waste that enters a Cedar Environmental plant will exit in a different and usable form.
Cedar Environmental plants are founded on the ethos of local, environmentally friendly and financially sustainable waste treatment.
In line with this, their mission demands the elimination of the unnecessary and expensive transportation and storage of trash.
“We are going against the trend of centralizing waste management,” Abichaker says. “What we are saying as a working model for the very near future is every community can have its own waste management recycling plant.
“These centers are very close to the communities so, you can [collect the garbage] on a … daily basis. You don’t have to compact; you don’t have to use the compactor trucks, which are prohibitively expensive.”
Vieverte is an organically certified compost.
What has enabled Abichaker’s company to comfortably process waste close to communities is its development of technology to minimize the odor waste produces.
“People don’t want recycling plants near their communities mainly because of bad smells,” he says. But by having the composting take place inside a steel drum and accelerating the process by adding an enzymatic and bacterial preparation, which reduces composting time from 90 days to just three, the odors generally associated with waste treatment plants are avoided.
Currently Cedar Environmental plants receive commingled municipal waste, which is separated on site. Composting recycles the organic matter; while at present inorganic material is processed for recycling elsewhere.
“We shred the plastic, we bale the water bottles, we pack the glass bottles. So you have a facility there that treats all your garbage and sends very little to the landfill,” Abichaker says.
“Even clothes, we have a very neat application for them,” he says. “We are baling them and we’re going to use them as fencing.”
“We have no proper recycling of textiles [in Lebanon],” he adds.
Soon, however, Cedar Environmental hopes to launch its building material, Eco-Board as a second fully recycled, marketable product.
Abichaker modestly claims that Eco-Board – made from shredding and repacking everything from chip bags to flip-flops into a one-centimeter thick solid board – was “just a consequence of building recycling plants.”
However, he says, it means “now we can very confidently go to municipalities and say, we can build a recycling plant for your garbage and we don’t want a landfill.”
The next step is to build a major plant for Eco-Board’s production. “[In] 2012 we’re going to be on the market extensively. We’re going to replace a lot of stuff with boards made from plastic bags,” Abichaker assures.
In fact, he already has an order for the new boards – from a company that will use them instead of wooden panels as fencing on a construction site.
Other Eco-Board products in development include bus-stop shelters, tables, benches, reinforced wooden pallets, bins and prefabricated houses.
Eco-Board will come with a lifetime guarantee, with damaged boards replaced and no longer functional boards recycled and reconstituted into a new board, Abichaker says.
The environmentalist cannot stress enough the suitability of initiatives like his company’s to Lebanon. “The landfill model has really exhausted all its favorable arguments,” he says citing the capital as an example. “Beirut is on the verge of a major catastrophe when it comes to waste treatment. Naameh landfill is alarmingly running out of space.”
He points out that in “Beirut and Mount Lebanon 2,500 tons [of waste] per day” is collected and “only 300 get composted or sorted, all the others go as is to the Naameh landfill.”
“It’s a terrible loss and a terrible expense,” he adds.
The alternative he offers is ideal because it requires relatively little space, minimizes storage and transportation costs, doesn’t inconvenience households – he asks only that refuse be separated into organic and inorganic bins – and is affordable for municipalities.
Abichaker’s ideal is to service four or five municipalities together by one Cedar Environmental plant. “We prefer [to service] 100,000 people [per plant],” he says. “These guys would generate 50 tons [of waste] per day. We have a small piece of land, not exceeding 10,000 square meters [and] we build a recycling plant there.
“[The] service … is paid [for] by residential unit. It is just about LL6,000 per household per month. So this is what we’re telling [the municipalities], ‘Hey listen … [it’s] peanuts.’” Although the company operates just 10 plants at present – one in Beirut, one in Jbeil and eight in south Lebanon – Abichaker says: “Now [the municipalities] are listening to us more. They believe in our model.”
By 2020, the entrepreneur, with a smile, says he hopes to have 100 operational plants, but for now he’s just proud of his accomplishments. “We are certified for organic agriculture and for us this is huge. This is what we have been saying all along: If you change your perspective or if you shift the paradigm you are using now for waste collection and treatment, you can take a major problem, which was a major pollutant, and you can turn it into a high-grade, high-value-added product.”
And while he may spend his days up to his armpits in other people’s trash, for two decades Abichaker has had what most people only ever dream of: a true love for his job.
“For me it’s more than work, it’s a passion,” he says. “You know people complain on Monday mornings; I’m anxious on a Sunday night just to get to the plant Monday morning.”