Few people take the time to look at them, but 21 AUB architecture students did. For weeks on end, they followed, interviewed and got to know the country’s waste pickers as no one has before. Their conclusion: waste pickers need a more efficient cart to push around in the uneven streets of Beirut. And it was up to them, these architecture students, to come out with one.
“The idea is to find a way to empower these waste pickers,” said architecture instructor Maha Nasrallah. “There are so many people who don’t have a way to survive and it’s getting worse.”
Under the guidance of Nasrallah and architecture professor Rana Haddad, the students set to work.
The architecture students are part of the Vertical Studio Class that merges third and fourth year students together, teaching them to explore new design approaches through lateral thinking and experimentation.
Already, a group of students from the Vertical Studio Class won in the 2014 Holcim regional prize for sustainable architecture for designing a waste-to-energy plant.
“I strongly believe that an architect’s role is not merely to design spaces, but to be involved in everyday life and serve society,” said Haddad. “That’s why we had created the Vertical Studio Class, to show that the architectural object can become a tool with which to challenge our understanding of built space and the way that built space should be accomplished and offered to its users, thus directly addressing the ethics of our discipline.”
As part of the studio, three groups of students were formed – each tasked with following a waste picker and creating the best cart which suits his needs.
Their first job was to understand the country’s garbage.
“The garbage is so rich in Lebanon and it’s not being sorted properly,” said Nasrallah. “So yes, there is room for people to make an income from this and make a decent living.”
According to the Lebanese Ministry of the Environment, Lebanon generates about 1.5 million tons of trash every year. From all this waste, only 17 percent gets recycled or composted, 51 percent goes to landfills and 40 percent of Lebanon’s garbage, that is over 32,000 tons, ends up in illegal and non-regulated dumps every year. This is about 88 tons of waste in the open air, every day.
This is where AUB students came in. Each group “adopted” a waste picker and designed a cart which fits his needs. The areas chosen were Bourj Hammoud and Nabaa – where narrow streets prevented garbage trucks from entering – an ideal place to find local waste pickers.
One group came across Mahmoud – a 31-year old father of two. He makes an average monthly income of 400,000LL from picking up household garbage and delivering them to the waste dumpsters just outside the narrow maze of streets. At first, he was taken aback by the group of five university women who had taken such a keen interest in his cart. But as he listened to their earnest explanation, he got into it himself.
“I liked their idea,” he explained. “I wanted to see what they would come out with.”
He even drew for them the ideal cart.
“He specifically requested a separate compartment for clothes,” said Christina Attiyeh, one of the students who were designing the cart. “These, he wanted to keep for his own family. So we started thinking of compartmentalizing to cater to his needs.”
Mahmoud also requested a cart which expands. Obligingly, the students began to design a cart which starts off small and gets bigger with every load.
“The cart serves a dual function. In the front section, it has different compartments for recyclable items like cans, glass, cardboards and plastic,” said Mira Bou Matar, another student on the team. “The bigger container in the middle holds the household bagged trash.”
Most importantly, the cart had to be small enough to fit in the narrow streets.
Meanwhile, the other groups of students were working with their own waste pickers. Designs were produced, thrown away and reproduced. Some designed a cart which is collapsible. Some carts were designed to open at the side. One group even outfitted their card with a canopy and a public awareness slogan. Finally each group created the perfect design.
Since the students themselves had to finance the project, the group held a bake sale which managed to raise $200 in one day.
“And then we contacted an NGO – Cedar Environment – and they donated another $150,” said student Yara Rahme. “So we were ready to start.”
They headed to the welders.
“At first, the metal we chose was too heavy,” said student Romy El Sayah. “So we had to find a more lightweight material and different rods. That alone was a big challenge.”
Finally, the cart was ready.
It was a big moment for the students. For his part, Mahmoud, was overwhelmed and repeatedly expressed his gratitude. “It has really made a difference for me,” he said. “My job is so much easier now.”
With his old cart, Mahmoud could only go through 10 garbage cans before his cart would fill up with salvageable trash. Now, he could do 40.
Of course, Mahmoud also had a few ideas. “I installed my old wheels and took out the extra hooks for bags they had put for me,” he continued. “But the rest is just what I needed.”
As for the students, Mahmoud’s words were music to their ears.
“My heart practically melted,” said Marylynn Antaki, also on design team. “It was a small thing for us. But for him, it was a huge impact. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to change someone’s life.”
Students and teachers are now hoping that NGOs will take over and provide such carts to all the city’s waste pickers.