The Middle East's first zero-waste store opens in Beirut

Despite the February drizzle, opening night was abuzz with activity, welcoming a mix of vendors, interested citizens and journalists at the small store in Hamra. The EcoSouk, which Kehdy, 33, is billing as the Middle East’s first zero-waste store, is the latest project from Recycle Lebanon, and perhaps the most important step so far. She calls it the “Circular Hub” – a play on the Arabic word for love, hub, and the concept of a circular economy, which traditionally champions minimal waste and making the most of a nation’s resources – where her “change-makers” can congregate.

“This isn’t a store,” Kehdy explains. “It’s a hub and point of access. You don’t even have to buy something. You get a free tree with or without purchase.” The akidineh is a native Lebanese fruit tree that she’s distributing as part of an effort to offset the store’s carbon footprint. “We want you to re-think the way you are consuming and the products you are producing.”

Kehdy was raised on a farm in the Lebanese village of Baskinta, so the traditions of the country resonate with her, and this is what has led her to her unique brand of environmentalism. “Lebanon is traditionally a circular economy. We just have a name for it now. It used to be village way of living. A repair culture, an artisanal culture.”

Instead of importing western innovations for green living, Recycle Lebanon is committed to looking for baladi, or traditional alternatives, from the country first. For example, the store is selling meswak, a tooth-cleaning twig that boasts anti-bacterial and medicinal properties and has been in use across the Middle East for 7,000 years.

The plan is to eventually also import bamboo toothbrushes and other eco-­friendly goods, but Kehdy first wants to promote what’s available on home turf. “The approach of the place is what struck me,” says Basil Abi-­Hanna of BA Creations, whose homemade knives are featured in the store. “It isn’t this modern concept of consuming 1,000 plastic bottles but thinking that because you recycle it’s OK.”

The artisan, 31, builds his products using reclaimed wood from items such as skateboards or sailboats, and then engraves each custom knife with the co-ordinates of where the material was originally found. “Making things and learning how things are made is healthy. Most people don’t know that soap or shampoo can be made by hand.”

Kehdy remembers going to a farmers’ market in Maui, where she worked for eight years, and being shocked that the prices were so much higher than in the supermarkets. Thinking back to her childhood, this just didn’t make sense to her. “The real reason behind this is how my dad raised me. As a child, I wasn’t allowed to eat Jello from the box, I had to suck gelatin from the bone.”

Despite Lebanon’s age-old ­environmentally friendly traditions, the country still faces an uphill battle in its mission to become truly green. Sea pollution is reaching dangerous levels and every single water source in the country, including rivers, are polluted to some degree, according to a 2017 report by the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute. Recent government reports also found that in Beirut and its suburbs, more than 3,000 tonnes of garbage are created per day. Many citizens feel helpless, which is why Kehdy’s DIY environmentalism is especially inspiring in Lebanon right now.

It’s taken four years of hosting pop-up shops, which would feature both Lebanese and western eco-conscious alternatives, but now, it seems, her determination has paid off. The EcoSouk really does offer all the accoutrements for an environmental lifestyle, including a “pharmacy” bar, where customers can fill glass jars with nearly every beauty and body product one needs.

Kehdy says it requires more time to work with producers and Lebanese companies before everything is without plastic, though. Even making sure everything was 100 per cent zero-waste in EcoSouk was tough enough.

In the future, she’ll also arrange tours so customers can actually see where products are being made. They’ll visit the workshops where plastic bags are washed and pressed into reusable bags or go to see traditional soap-makers. She also aims to open another EcoSouk with a maker space hub.

“I want to put Lebanon on the map [of environmentalism],” Kehdy explains. “This is something that is native to us, from traditional soap-making to making mouneh to distilling aromas. We are farmers. We are the birthplace of agriculture.”

Alexandra Talty - The National