The 81-year-old woman in­spir­ing a na­tion to re­cy­cle

Tehran Times - - LIFE & SOCIETY -

An 81-year-old who set up an all-woman rub­bish col­lec­tion team in her vil­lage in Le­banon now has a stream of visi­tors ask­ing how she did it. For nine months in 2015 and 2016 rub­bish piled up on the streets of the cap­i­tal, Beirut, and even now a lack of land­fill sites means some of the city’s waste is be­ing thrown in the sea. Zeinab Mokalled has shown that when gov­ern­ment fails, do-ity­our­self lo­cal ini­tia­tives can work.

“There used to be dirt ev­ery­where and the kids were filthy,” Zeinab Mokalled tells me.

She is re­mem­ber­ing the 1980s and 90s, when Is­rael oc­cu­pied part of the south of the coun­try for 15 years, and waste col­lec­tion came to a halt in her vil­lage, Arab­salim.

As the years went by, it piled up, and Mokalled went to the re­gional gover­nor to ask for help.

“Why do you care? We are not Paris,” he told her.

“I knew that day that I had to take it upon my­self,” she says.

Mokalled called on the women of the vil­lage to help, not the men - partly be­cause she wanted to em­power them, and partly be­cause she thought they would do a bet­ter job.

It would also have been up to the women to sort the recycling, and prob­a­bly to put out the rub­bish. So Zeinab needed vol­un­teers to go door-to-door to get the mes­sage to the women in ev­ery house - and for this job, men would have been in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

They had no equip­ment, and no in­fra­struc­ture. So how to be­gin?

Mokalled’s friend Khadija Farhat bought a lorry out of her own pocket. Mokalled her­self turned her back gar­den into a stor­age area for re­cy­clable waste.

It didn’t seem likely that the 10,000 vil­lagers would pay to have their rub­bish col­lected, so the vol­un­teers paid for it them­selves. Nine­teen years later they still do, each of 46 mem­bers putting in about $40 each year.

“House­hold recycling was the best way for­ward,” says Mokalled, who named the or­gan­i­sa­tion Call of the Earth.

To be­gin with they re­cy­cled glass, paper and plas­tic. Re­cently they started col­lect­ing elec­tronic waste and have em­ployed a re­searcher to find the best way of mak­ing com­post in the hot and dry con­di­tions of south­ern Le­banon.

The only help the waste col­lec­tors re­ceived from the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, after three years’ work, was a gift of 300 plas­tic bins and a piece of land, which en­abled Mokalled to get her gar­den back.

At the same time they started rent­ing a lorry to work along­side Farhat’s, and hired a male driver - though they con­tin­ued to ac­com­pany him to en­sure he was not alone when ap­proach­ing women.

After 10 years they re­ceived a grant from the Ital­ian em­bassy to build a ware­house, which is where Mokalled now re­ceives visi­tors - schoolchil­dren, stu­dents and ac­tivists - who come to study how Call of the Earth works. And the num­bers have in­creased since the clo­sure of Beirut’s main land­fill site in 2015 led waste to pile up around the city, and the sur­round­ing area of Mount Le­banon.

At­tempts to find a new home for the city’s waste quickly de­scended into farce. The Not-In-My-Back­yard syn­drome was am­pli­fied by the coun­try’s sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions – no com­mu­ni­ties wanted to host the dump. Then the gov­ern­ment said it would ex­port the rub­bish only to re­verse the de­ci­sion months later.

The waste had to go some­where, though, so it was dumped near the air­port, but this at­tracted flocks of seag­ulls, which be­came a haz­ard for air­craft. At­tempts to shoot the gulls brought howls of protest, so ma­chines were brought in to play loud mu­sic that would frighten them away. A court has now ordered the clo­sure of this site, though seag­ulls con­tinue to cir­cle.

More wor­ry­ingly, an old waste dump has been re-opened. As well as tak­ing in new waste, lor­ries can be seen car­ry­ing old waste - much of it re­port­edly con­tam­i­nated with chem­i­cals - from the moun­tain and tip­ping it into the Mediter­ranean.

In the long term, the gov­ern­ment says it wants to burn the waste and gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity from it. But crit­ics fear it won’t be prop­erly sorted, and that plas­tics and other ma­te­ri­als ca­pa­ble of cre­at­ing toxic fumes will be buried along with cleaner or­ganic waste.

So per­haps it’s not sur­pris­ing that Zeinab Mokalled’s sim­ple com­mu­nity recycling scheme is now at­tract­ing at­ten­tion.

The women of the nearby vil­lage of Kaf­fare­men have re­cently set up their own ini­tia­tive, which is sim­i­lar, ex­cept that it is funded by the vil­lagers, rather than the vol­un­teers. The nearby town of Jaar­joua has also de­cided to fol­low suit.

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