30 Jun 2020
Beirut, Lebanon
Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Waste Management

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” So ends classic neo-noir film The Usual Suspects, with an observation that could describe Lebanon’s recent history of waste management. The tiny country made global headlines in 2015 with an alarming garbage crisis, as uncollected trash piled up in the streets. The news cycle has moved on, but overflowing landfills are set to spill over in Lebanon once more.

Thankfully, many Lebanese — including green entrepreneurs like Rita El Helou — have not become complacent. El Helou recently established Sought, a distributor of eco-friendly products, to help stave off another trash disaster. Since last year, Sought has been stocking a variety of retailers with alternatives to plastic products like toothbrushes and kitchen wrap. For El Helou, sustainable consumption starts with these basic, everyday household items. “Using natural and biodegradable products can lead us to zero-waste,” she said.

Amongst Lebanese, El Helou is far from alone in her astonishment at the country’s deeply flawed management of solid waste. Public authorities rely overwhelmingly on landfill disposal sites, often leaving community organisations to run recycling projects. 

According to El Helou, unsustainable attitudes to waste management also persist throughout the community. Five years on from the garbage crisis, litter is still strewn across many public spaces, while households and offices often fail to recycle plastic and other materials effectively. El Helou saw the need for an urgent, widespread attitude change.

El Helou scoured the internet for inspiration about how she could contribute solutions to Lebanon’s garbage problem. That search brought her to her business idea — an eco-friendly distributorship of plastic alternatives — along with a business name. 

I was looking for alternatives to plastic products and I sought for them online,” El Helou said. “This is where the company name came from!” Neatly, the Arabic homonym for the word sought means “voice,” reflecting El Helou’s passion for raising awareness about the environmental danger posed by plastic waste.

Sought imports sustainable alternatives to plastic household products and sells them to various retailers, including pharmacies, organic stores, and eco-friendly restaurants. El Helou has also sold Sought products at pop-up green markets and corporate events.

Legally speaking, El Helou is the founder and global distributor of Myellowrap, her organic beeswax kitchen wrap. Sought imports the wrap itself from France, while the product’s branding and recycled paper packaging are Lebanese-made. Sought is the exclusive distributor of the Nup Living Bamboo toothbrush for the Middle East and Mediterranean regions.

Sought’s import-driven business strategy has become incredibly challenging in Lebanon, which has endured an economic meltdown since late 2019. The Lebanese lira’s devaluation means that it is increasingly expensive to purchase goods in foreign currency, including Sought’s kitchen wrap and toothbrushes. 

To make matters worse, many Lebanese have cut back on household spending as they try to weather a terrifying financial storm. “The crisis is getting deeper, day after day, and it is affecting all sectors,” said El Helou.

Yet El Helou remains undaunted. As businesses around the world have scaled back operations during 2020, Sought has started distributing products in a new country: Cyprus. El Helou is also discussing avenues for expanding Sought’s geographical reach even further, while also considering more products to add to the company’s range.

Lebanon’s economic crisis has understandably stolen attention in recent months. But Sought remains focused on a familiar demon — mountains of garbage, lurking just below the surface, which will erupt without immediate action.

 

Learn more about Sought through Facebook and Instagram.

Photos courtesy of Sought

David Wood is a freelance writer and researcher based in Beirut. He previously worked in Cairo.David Wood
“That’s a wrap” — Organic kitchen wrap and Lebanon’s shift away from plastic | The Switchers
Sought Resource efficiency and sustainable waste management
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