Arab start-ups upcycle to reclaim waste — and the future

Upcycling start-ups often stress the social good that comes of supporting them.
Sunday 22/07/2018
Different models of cotton clutch bags. (IDYR)
Modern value. Different models of cotton clutch bags. (IDYR)

Anecdotally, Arab cities are among the dirtiest in the world. Residents and visitors know the streets of Beirut, Riyadh, Cairo and Algiers are strewn with trash and that inadequate garbage collection can be part of a persistent problem.

EcoMENA, the volunteer-driven initiative creating environmental awareness in the Middle East and North Africa, says urban waste generation from countries in the region is more than 150 million tonnes a year.

The Arab Forum for Environment and Development, a regional NGO, predicted that the amount of “municipal solid waste” — a long way of saying everyday trash or rubbish — generated in Arab countries will exceed 200 million tonnes per year by 2020. The good news is that close to 80% of it can decompose or be recycled.

Entrepreneurs have taken note. Many upcycling — creative recycling — start-ups in the region are in Egypt but there are initiatives across the Maghreb, Lebanon, Jordan and Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

“We work creatively around the physical properties of the waste items,” said Yomna Seoudi, founder of CAN Interiors, a start-up in Cairo that transforms material from the garbage dump into furniture. It uses wood and cardboard to make divans. The Brainstormers Wall, which retails for about $20, is a whiteboard made from electronic waste. It can be used with erasable markers, Seoudi said, adding that Brainstormers sells very well.

Fadwa Moussaif, co-founder of IDYR in Casablanca, said its focus is on cotton waste. Its popular clutch bags and keychains are a sidebar to the fashion industry, she said, because IDYR uses textile waste to make high-quality products.

Both start-ups were founded within the past three years. Seoudi said the idea came to her when she saw mountains of trash in Cairo, her hometown. “Back at university, we were taught to think of design as having minimum negative effect — whether on the environment or user experience. I saw Cairo’s mega trash as a challenge,” she said.

Moussaif said IDYR was born out of a chance encounter with women weavers.

“As part of a local social entrepreneur programme, we were requested to prospect for local problems and needs,” she said. “We came across a group of women weavers and seamstresses who shared with us an ancestral technique called ‘boucharouite.’ We discovered the technique had social and environmental value and the idea came to leave the value untouched but to modernise it for wider consumption.”

CAN Interiors and IDYR are part of a trend to upcycle, which means creatively reusing unwanted or waste products. Almost anything can be made into something new. Entrepreneurs say it’s about making artistic products while raising awareness about waste.

CAN Interiors makes products but also provides workshops on waste management for children and young adults. So does Ziadat4Recycling, in Amman, which has the motto: “We love furniture and we hate garbage, so what’s the outcome?”

The start-up, which lists the material — barrels, bicycles, doors, glass, metal, pallets, paper, pipes, plastic, tiles, tyres, wood — it uses to upcycle, is trying to spread the word about recycling. Project manager Marianne Sievers said the company “first installed a recycling box in a public space in Jabal Al-Weibdeh but moved it to our workshop because people did not know how to properly use it but it did help people know that it is possible to recycle.”

Waste Studio, a Lebanese accessory brand, uses advertising banners, tyre innertubes and seatbelts to make stylish bags. Managing Director Marc Metni said: “We are striving to create employment opportunities and raise environmental awareness, and this is much needed and a breath of fresh air.”

How easy is it to sell upcycled products when they can cost a minimum of five times more than mass-produced ones?

Moussaif said customers must be persuaded to think about the “perfect finish” of their wares.

Omar Moneim of Jereed, in Cairo, said: “We work with the best designers in Egypt and work around the property of each upcycled material, texture and variant natural colours, to offer something unique to our clients that they actually want to acquire.”

Upcycling start-ups often stress the social good that comes of supporting them. FabricAID from Lebanon, which upcycles second-hand clothing into hip affordable outfits, started out of founder Omar Itani’s realisation that “less than 5% of clothes are being collected (in Lebanon). Yet 2.5 million people can’t afford first-hand clothes.”

Philipp Harnik, FabricAID’s development officer, says its “products are in high demand due to their extremely affordable prices and good quality. Within the last two months, FabricAID sold 16,000 clothing items to 3,000 beneficiaries for an average price of [$0.90] per item through its pop-up markets and permanent second-hand clothing shops across Lebanon.”

The social enterprise in Beirut is planning to upscale its operations throughout the MENA region “where 75 million people rely on affordable second-hand clothing,” Harnik said.

Governments across the Arab world could help in small but significant ways. Yara Yassin, founder and product designer of Up-fuse, a start-up in Cairo that sells upcycled bags, says a government tax on single-use products would be helpful.

Until then, upcycling start-ups are doing their best to reclaim waste and the region’s future.