Bringing recycling to Kuwait

Per capita, Kuwait is among the wealthiest countries in the world. But, despite having the means, it has yet to embrace modern waste management techniques, such as recycling or the sorting of trash before it’s discarded.

Fatemah Alzelzela is determined to change that. The 24-year-old electrical engineer is the co-founder of Eco Star, a non-profit group that recycles rubbish from homes, restaurants and schools across the Middle-Eastern country.

“I live in one of the richest countries in the world, yet we don’t have many sustainable solutions in the field of recycling,” says Alzelzela. “All of us should care about the environment, but we are lost. We are trying to show people the path again.”

Since launching in early 2019, Eco Star has recycled over three-and-a-half tonnes of plastic, 10 tonnes of paper and 120 tonnes of metal. That is a notable feat in a country where 90 per cent of waste – from food to sewage to petroleum – ends up in landfills.  Alzelzela also set up an innovative partnership with a large nursery so Eco Star gives their customers shrubs and trees in exchange for their recycling.

For that work, Alzelzela was recently named a Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). She is one of seven prize winners who will receive funding and mentorship to support their environmental initiatives.

“We must step up and make the environment a priority,” said Elisa Tonda, an expert in sustainable consumption from UNEP’s Economy Division. “Never before, has it been clearer that our health is interconnected with the health of the environment. We need bold initiatives to move the environmental agenda forward.”

The cost of waste

Kuwait generates 1.5 kilograms of trash per person per day, twice the global average. The country has provided waste collection services since the late 1960s. However, rubbish is handled by private companies with little screening and sorting, leading to pollution and health risks.

The lack of recycling is also a financial missed opportunity. A 2014 study showed that 76 per cent of Kuwait’s waste is recyclable, and the potential value of the raw materials that could be saved from dumps is over US$ 130 million annually.

Believing they could make a difference, Alzelzela and her sister launched Eco Star last year, investing US$ 600 of their own money in the start-up. The early days, she says, were challenging. Kuwaiti authorities and potential business partners were skeptical of Alzelzela’s business model, making it hard to forge connections. Kuwait is also a patriarchal society, and Alzelzela says she was “not taken seriously” because of her age, gender and social stigma around waste collection in Kuwait.

But Alzelzela remained undaunted.

She took to Instagram, Kuwait’s most popular social network. Eco Star’s feed soon filled with inspiring images of recycling, tips on how to reduce household waste and news of Eco Star’s expansion across Kuwait. The Instagram account would soon have over 20,000 followers and more people signed up for Eco Star’s services.

Scaling up

The company has since formed partnerships with schools, teaching children about recycling, threats to the environment and how young people can act for nature.

The Eco Star team charges a nominal US $3 fee to the homes, schools and restaurants it collects recycling from. This re-enforces the idea that recycling is a necessary service, not a charity.

Eco Star is also building a database of the waste it collects, recording everything from its weight to where it was picked up. The company, says Alzelzela, is the first in Kuwait to compile that information.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” says Alzelzela, noting teams have data points from 2,000 homes, schools, companies and restaurants. “We can now start analyzing the data we have generated, to find out which areas generate more waste, and why.”

Despite curfews imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on collecting waste, Alzelzela is eager to ramp up Eco Star’s operations. But for that to happen, she says authorities must get on the recycling bandwagon and make space for the ideas of millennials.

“Young people and young women should be given more chances to make decisions, be creative and find solutions. We can all take action and inspire others to take action on a bigger scale. It will take patience. But I know we can make it happen.”  

UN Environment