Lebanon has a trash problem. Since July 2015, residents have regularly set afire mountains of garbage to manage the ever-growing piles that have lined city streets, overrun river beds, and spilled down mountainsides ever since the government failed to find a replacement for an overflowing landfill. Nearly a year later, there is still no resolution, and no effective recycling program for the country’s 5 million residents.
A sculptor and designer from Syria is making a small dent in this growing problem. Wissam Muases has been perfecting a system to upcycle glass bottles into sleek, functional objects for the home: glasses, plant holders, jars, and ashtrays. Wissam left Syria in July 2011 as protests grew to avoid military service and spent a year in Turkey before landing in Lebanon in 2012.
“It was for me a kind of challenge, a challenge in a field that has a fast and direct impact on society,” he says of his recycling project.
Wissam doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist, but aspires to the zero-waste lifestyle that he remembers from his childhood in Syria. He recalls his mother mending their socks and pants until they were irreparable, at which point they became stuffing for a mattress.
On a recent visit to Wissam’s workshop, he is making drinking glasses from Almaza bottles, Lebanon’s most popular beer. Wissam estimates he has upcycled 10,000 bottles so far, using two machines that he built by hand. He keeps one in a single-room workshop in his home in Beirut.
One of the machines runs on a motor from an air-conditioning unit to spin a bottle above a flame, charring a black circle just below the neck. Here, the bottle is first dunked in cold water to fracture the glass in a perfect circle. The secret to Wissam’s process, one now coveted by other glass entrepreneurs in Lebanon, is the machine that smooths the broken rim, with high-speed wheels to polish glasses of all sizes.
Wissam’s glasses are now a mainstay in many Beirut homes and offices. He sells his work in artisan markets, home goods stores, and even a few neighborhood corner stores. A box of four nicely packaged drinking glasses shipped to customers in Europe and the Middle East can fetch around USD 30.
While Wissam is one of the few individuals in Lebanon to present practical solutions for what is called the garbage crisis, his work is impeded by the fact that he’s a Syrian refugee living without legal refugee status.
Behind Turkey, Lebanon hosts the second highest number of Syrian refugees in the world—1.2 million people. Lebanon at first opened its border to its eastern neighbors, but it has since closed the doors and imposed restrictions that make life incredibly difficult for the majority of Syrians in the country. A huge number, including Wissam, are not able to get protected refugee status and are forced to stay undocumented in the country, or face a perilous return to their own.
For Wissam, the laws are huge obstacles to growing his recycling enterprise. He is not legally allowed to own a business or open a bank account to manage the company’s funds. He says that if he were legally able to operate, his company could upcycle on a much larger scale and for very little capital. He also plans to expand to building furniture from recycled materials.
“I like the project. I love the project. How will you explain this?” he asks, audibly frustrated and pointing to a reporter’s notebook. “I’m stuck. I’m stuck!”