In Just One Summer Vacation from College, These Young Women Transformed a Town

Not many people in the world can claim to have single-handedly created a recycling program for an entire community before starting their second year of college, but that is exactly what Moni Ayoub and Anđela Rončević have done.

“It has been a dream of mine,” Ayoub said. “And now it’s happening.”

The seeds of the idea were planted the summer of 2015 before Ayoub started her freshman year at the College of the Atlantic. During that time, a garbage crisis developed in Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon, where the city’s landfill reached its capacity. Three months later, a river of trash was overflowing into the streets. The situation got so bad that people started protesting and became increasingly violent with the deployment of the Lebanese army.

“I remember feeling that ‘Okay, there’s definitely something that I need to do about it,’” Ayoub said.

When Ayoub heard about the Projects for Peace award, she proposed a plan to Rončević, her friend since high school. Ayoub and Rončević had already been involved in recycling programs on their college campus, and were ready to apply their experiences to a larger situation. They applied together, stating that their project, Waste on the Wheel, would “create a positive relationship between people and discarded resources and create solutions that will generate social, economic, and environmental sustainability,” in Ayoub’s hometown of Barsa, Lebanon.

“Should we wait for another landfill to exceed its capacity and cause another crisis?” they asked in their proposal. “No, we must act now.”

Together they won a $10,000 Projects for Peace Award to travel to Ayoub’s hometown of Barsa and spend the months of June and July creating the village’s first recycling program. After arriving in the 700 person village in the northern part of Lebanon, they put their plan into action.

Their first step was to talk to the local municipality about creating a partnership. “They were so excited to do recycling,” said Rončević, who is from Croatia. As it turned out, the new head of the municipality had already been thinking of ways to start a recycling program in Barsa. “So this project came perfectly at the right time,” said Rončević.

In order to encourage residents to participate in a new recycling infrastructure, Ayoub and Rončević decided to do a deceptively simple thing: they talked to people. The young women went door to door and spoke to the members of each household, where Ayoub would explain in Arabic how they planned to create a public recycling system in the next month. Most families were excited about recycling finally coming to Barsa, in which case Ayoub and Rončević would give them three labeled bins for their house – one for plastic, one for metal and glass, and one for mixed paper and cardboard.

“When we came with bins [the families] said, ‘Oh, that’s such a beautiful project,’” said Rončević.

“Yes,” said Ayoub. “So many children said, ‘I know what this is!’ Their schools taught them how to recycle, but then they go home, and there’s nowhere to recycle.” It was this discrepancy between education and infrastructure that frustrated Ayoub for so long, and ultimately inspired her to take a step forward in her community, along with the experience Rončević had in her work study program at the College of the Atlantic.

Ayoub and Rončević did not stop at the household level. Next, they located every public trash barrel and created their own public recycling stations right next to them. “We found big metal barrels that were used for oil,” said Rončević. They took them, cleaned them, and painted them bright, red, green, and yellow, placing a barrel each for different recyclable material right next to the garbage barrels. “We’re actually reusing them,” said Ayoub with a smile.

Transporting the recycling in the repurposed public barrels turned out to be a surprisingly simple process. The same vehicle that takes the trash to the town’s incinerator would be used to pick up the recycling, one material at a time, and pile them into the three different recyclable materials on a small piece of the municipality’s land. Once they have amassed enough of each material, a recycling company from Beirut would pick up the material and drive it to a recycling plant.

Ayoub and Rončević want to make the switch to recycling as easy as possible for the people of Barsa. Now when Ayoub and Roncevic walk around the village, they observe many people using the recycling stations with ease. They estimate that the town is now recycling at least half of its waste.

But the success of the Waste on the Wheel project has not been without its challenges. For example, Barsa visitors would ignore the labels at the recycling stations and accidentally contaminate them with trash. In an area of Lebanon where the tap water is unsafe to drink, single use items are the norm, and recycling them has traditionally not been a priority. “You’re always thirsty here,” said Rončević. “The idea that you can buy a thermos…” she shook her head. “That’s very hard.”

“I remember being a kid, and it was so normal for a bus driver to toss away a plastic water bottle out of the window…” said Ayoub. “It’s such a normal, accepted thing to do, just toss away your trash out the window.”

“I grew up wanting to look out my window and see that there are recycling bins,” she said. “I would always think ‘why doesn’t anyone ever come and recycle here? Why doesn’t someone implement that?’” Then she realized that she was that person.  

Ayoub and Rončević used their experience with student-run recycling programs on the microcosm of their college campus and extrapolated the solution out to a community near and dear to Ayoub’s heart. In the span of forty days, Ayoub and Rončević had far surpassed their goal, setting up 19 public recycling stations and equipping 150 houses and stores with bins.

“The head of the municipality really wants this to happen,” said Ayoub. Already, he is looking to hire people from the area to continue the door-to-door work that Ayoub and Rončević did. “He is trying to picture the village without garbage at all.” Because it has been a grassroots effort, the community feels like it has ownership of the project, and is invested in its survival after Ayoub and Rončević leave.

Ayoub and Rončević are also making “Barsa Recycles” signs to put in public spaces. “Just as a reminder to people that this is a legit thing happening,” said Rončević. “And that it will be continuing after we are gone.”

Hardly a year after starting college, they used their experience to radically change the face of waste management in Barsa. Whether it is a college campus program or a community project, this is how movements grow: individuals like students and community members taking action and exercising their citizen muscle. Ayoub and Rončević exhibit the passion of an emerging generation of world leaders influencing change from the ground up, from students to their institutions, and individuals to their communities, country, and the world.

“Our hopes are high for this little village,” Ayoub and Rončević said in their final blog post at the end of the 40-day project. “It can set an example for the rest of the country, and serve as an inspiration to people that change is tangible!”

Photo credits: All photos used with permission of Moni Ayoub and Anđela Rončević from their blog, Waste on the Wheel.

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