Plastic Rebirth: Youth ready to #BeatPlasticPollution in the Arab Region

June 4, 2023

Have you walked next to a busy road, stepping over cups, bags, and other plastic waste on your way home? This is a common sight for many around the world, the Arab region included.  

The Arab region suffers from poor waste management and the increasing use of plastics. The average amount of plastic waste that ends up in the seas is more than 6 kg per resident, the highest level globally. It is estimated that around 60% of the waste in the Maghreb and Mashreq regions is mismanaged, and the amount of waste is expected to almost double by 2050.  

Solutions are needed and fast. Young people in the Arab region are already taking the initiative and developing solutions to plastic pollution in their communities.  

UNDP supports them in developing their ideas and taking their initiatives further. The Youth Leadership Programme, part of the Youth Empowerment, Engagement & Knowledge Project - SHABABEEK, works with young people to unleash their creative power for positive change in the region, and the UNDP Accelerator Labs are supporting innovative solutions toward a more sustainable planet.  

In line with World Environment Day 2023's theme of #BeatPlasticPollution, let's dive into the inspiring journeys of three young eco-changemakers leading the charge against plastic pollution in the Arab region.

From plastic waste to building materials  

Mena, 28, is a young woman from Baghdad, Iraq. She became interested in solving the plastic pollution in Iraq after getting frustrated with the lack of recycling options in Iraq. 

“We see plastic everywhere, on the streets and in landfills. Even though I was interested in waste management, I lacked action. So, I started to find out what other countries are doing and how they are solving the problem, and decided to start with plastic recycling, as plastic waste is one of the hardest waste issues to solve.” 

Mena started the EcoMena project in 2021, aiming to recycle plastic waste and create building materials. Now, EcoMena turns plastic into an alternative to wood and PVC. Mena notes, that they are now moving toward acquiring more customers and growing in the Baghdad area. She has also received support from UNDP’s Accelerator Lab in Iraq in connecting with potential investors. 

Mena notes that her journey has not always been easy. She wishes to see more support for youth-led projects from the private sector and investors, as many young people want to start climate-related initiatives but need more resources to do so. Waste management is also often seen as a field that is rare for women in Iraq. 

“When I started working on my project, many looked at me like I was a weirdo. Why would I work on waste management and plastic pollution and not on something more ‘feminine’? I want to influence the younger generation, especially young women, to start their projects in any field they want.” 

Mena wants to pay back to her community, as she has gotten a lot of support on her journey. In 2023, she started Aziza, a women’s community that gathers to share knowledge, experiences, and skills among Iraqi women. She believes that taking the first steps will result in finding support. When the context is challenging, one can depend on their skills and networks to develop new innovative solutions despite the challenges. Mena is a great example of this. 

Changing minds for a greener future  

Mohammad, a 33-year-old environmental activist from the city of Hebron in Palestine, noticed how single-use plastic products are often buried, discarded, or left to accumulate on the streets. Recognizing the urgent need for action, he launched the Green World Initiative, a youth-led project aimed at recycling plastic products for the long-term benefit of society. 

“Our initiative has four main goals: popularizing the practice of recycling, developing capacities of young people, creating jobs for youth, and limiting the impacts of plastic pollution.”  

Green World collects plastic waste and converts it into different products, such as benches, tiles, medals, and necklaces, as well as industrial diesel for engine operation and power production. This way, plastic waste serves a purpose instead of ending up buried or buried in the environment. In addition, raising awareness of recycling and its importance is one of the key tools Mohammad and Green World are taking. Today, Green World Initiative has successfully engaged residents of all ages from Hebron.  

“We have managed to build a community of youth and families actively participating in our recycling processes, achieving unprecedented awareness.” 

In 2021, Mohammad participated in UNDP’s Youth Leadership Programme, and connected with like-minded peers who shared a passion for addressing similar challenges. Together, they engaged in thought-provoking discussions on regional and global environmental issues. 

Mohammad acknowledges that there is still much work to be done. While local youth are now more aware of the detrimental effects of plastic pollution, Mohammad emphasizes the need for increased support to encourage broader public concern. To combat plastic pollution effectively and empower more youth-led initiatives, the Green World project leaders advocate for comprehensive collaboration between the government, ministries, and the youth. 

Greener construction one block at a time  

Saif Eddine, 25, a social entrepreneur and climate activist from Morocco, remembers seeing plastic waste everywhere during field visits he joined as part of his university activities. When he talked to the local communities, people said that they do not have proper waste management systems. This started a question in his mind: how could the problem be turned into a solution that would benefit both the planet and the communities? 

“Plastic pollution is much more than just plastic bags that we often see. Millions more items need to be recycled and upcycled. The plastic itself is not always the problem, but how we use it and depose it after the use.” 

Saif Eddine started a social enterprise called Zelij Invent in 2017. It collects plastic waste and turns it into construction materials. The waste is mixed and formed into blocks that can be used in construction in the same way that normal cement blocks are used – but with a more positive environmental impact.  

Zelij Invent has collaborated with Moroccan constructors and individuals on various eco-building projects and is looking to expand production beyond Morocco to Iraq, Kenya, and Malaysia as well. Up to today, the company has upcycled more than 200 tons of plastic waste and is producing more than 15,000 blocks per month. They also work with local plastic pickers, who collect the plastic waste for the factory. The demand is exceeding production.  

“Everyone is responsible, not only individuals or companies, because it is about the whole life cycle of the product. We should take collective action to solve the issue.” 

While awareness-raising and individual actions are important, Saif Eddine highlights the need for developing more initiatives and legislation, that can help solve plastic pollution.  

Back when he was developing his project idea, Saif Eddine joined the Youth Leadership Programme in Morocco and tested his ideas with his peers, learning more about Sustainable Development Goals and social entrepreneurship. Now, Zelij Invent has also trained young people and children in recycling as well.  

Saif Eddine will be joining this year’s World Environment Day in Côte d'Ivoire as part of the entrepreneur delegation from Africa and the Arab states region. 

How can you help? 

Our three young changemakers highlighted the need to turn dreams into action, starting with individual small actions that one can do every day. Supporting local initiatives, volunteering, or maybe even starting your own project, are ways to have a significant impact. Changing attitudes and behaviors of people around us contribute towards a less polluted future. Advocating for policies and actions that reduce overall plastic production and hold polluters accountable is vital at all levels. Everyone can be part of the solution to #BeatPlasticPollution.