Breathing new life into Lebanon's ancient art of glassblowing

By boosting the recycling of green glass and finding a new use for it, Ziad Abichaker rescued the Khalife family and their trade from the brink of extinction.

By , Contributor

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    Ali Khalife, 30, sits in front of the kiln for his 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift in Sarafand, Lebanon. The oven is running at a temperature of over 2,500 degrees F, and cannot be turned off until all of their orders have been made.
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Glassblowing, a 2,000-year-old tradition that dates back to the Phoenicians and got its early start in Lebanon, was on the brink of extinction here just six months ago. But thanks to an innovative new recycling project, the country’s last glassblowing family has gotten more work in the past five months than the past five years combined.

In the seaside city of Sarafand, Mahmoud Khalife sits before an oven heated to more than 2,500 degrees (F.), a towel on one leg and a long hollow steel tube in the other hand. He dips the tube in molten glass, pulling it out periodically to blow through the pole, giving it shape first by breath, then by twirling and tapping the growing ball.

After going months at a stretch with no work, the Khalifes are now selling lamps, carafes, cups, and vases in Beirut and abroad, with more than $20,000 in orders since last November – including some from as far afield as New York and Switzerland.

The craft’s revival is a triumph of cooperation in a country increasingly buffeted by the Syrian war and internal political tensions. It can be traced largely to the ingenuity of environmental and industrial engineer Ziad Abichaker, who was named Arab World Social Innovator of the Year for his visionary recycling efforts. The project helped the Khalife family resurrect their trade and cleaned up nearly a quarter of a 60-ton stockpile of discarded bottles.

The Green Glass Recycling Initiative – Lebanon (GGRIL) was born out of necessity. Green and clear glass have different recycling processes, and during the July 2006 war, Israel destroyed Lebanon’s only green glass-manufacturing factory, which used up to 50 percent recycled glass in its new bottles. Lebanon's largest beer company uses green bottles, helping to drive a large surplus. 

While Lebanon’s beer and wine firms imported new bottles, the lack of an outlet for recycled colored glass created a massive problem for Mr. Abichaker’s company, Cedar Environmental, which was operating nearly a dozen municipal recycling plants. “I told the guys, ‘I don’t want any bottle thrown away. Keep stocking them until I come up with a solution,’” says Abichaker.

In 2010, he began developing the idea of a green glass-recycling program. The Khalife family, to whom he had previously considered sending some of his green glass, was always at the back of his mind. After Abichaker was named Arab World Social Innovator in 2011, he got $25,000 in seed money from the New York-based nonprofit Synergos that enabled him to pay the salaries to get the Khalifes restarted. Additionally, his team was able to create a “chipping line” to break down the glass, effectively reducing 90 percent of the volume of the glass and providing a way to efficiently transport the materials to Sarafand.

A local paper manufacturer donated $1,500 worth of recycled paperboard to get GGRIL off the ground. A friend made the design and another printed the recycled labels for free. Even the base of the lamps were recycled – either from shipping pallets or paper pulp waste.

Since November, the project has taken off. GGRIL products can now be bought in nine different locations throughout Beirut, a number that Abichaker says will reach about 20 by the end of 2014. He is confident that by then the seven-member Khalife team will be back to full-time work.

Amidst the instability in Lebanon, a family’s tradition lives on, while a new tradition of recycling and green thinking slowly gains traction. “We work not for money, but for tradition,” says Nisrine Khalife, who decorates the glassware. “We will keep this.”

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