While tackling the country’s garbage crisis may sound like an intimidating task to some, a simple personal initiative that Georges Bitar took, led him to create a practical solution to this tough challenge. This is the story of how his startup pushed thousands of people into action.
As Lebanon’s garbage problem reached the level of a national catastrophe in 2015, Georges had just returned from Mozambique where his attempt to build a life and a career outside of Lebanon did not bring him joy. Meanwhile, garbage piled high on the streets, in landfills, valleys and rivers of the country leaving people furious, protesting on the streets as the absence of government intervention to alleviate the crisis was disconcerting. Georges sprang into action collecting and sorting garbage to make sure it got recycled by the few recycling plants in the country. But his sorting efforts were met with a limitation: getting the sorted garbage transported to the recycling plants that were mostly located outside of the capital and major cities.
Georges worked with Uber Lebanon to launched the campaign #UberRecycle with Live Love Lebanon – an organization that leverages its strong social media presence to influence social action. Users of the Uber App were able to order the pick-up of their recyclables on-demand. Pick-ups were free of charge and the sorting instructions were clear, leaving people with no excuse not to take action.
The initiative was met with wide success, but Uber was not ready to move forward with it. Passionate about his mission and fueled with his entrepreneurial spirit, he decided to create his own application offering the same solution to its users: free, on-demand pick-up of recyclables – Live Love Recycle.
Passion, Perseverance and Patience
Georges self-financed the development of the Live Love Recycle App and spent three years looking for funding and support, to no avail. People were not taking the application seriously despite the proven success of the initiative that led to its creation. In 2018, Georges received a grant from the German government and Live Love Recycle finally took shape.
“When the App first launched, we promoted it on the social channels of Live Love Beirut, and we received way more requests than we had bargained for. That week the app topped the app store as the most downloaded app in Lebanon,” recalls Georges. “We knew that there was a need for this, but we did not expect people to react so positively to it!”
After they download the app, users sign up with their information and with one click they can get an instant pick up of their sorted garbage. The service is free, and users are allowed up to 4 pick-ups per month of two 60 L bags each. The limitation is set to push people to consume wisely and reduce the amount of trash they create.
With the funding and the large demand, Live Love Recycle came to operate a fleet of 400+ drivers using the startup’s 50+ electric bikes to pick up recyclables from across Beirut. The startup also employed 20 women to cook for its team focusing their recruitment efforts on the deprived and underprivileged to maximize their impact.
Come 2019 the Lebanese government banned electric bikes, making the startup’s fleet not only unusable but also a logistical burden. As the initial fund had already been used, Live Love Recycle launched a round of crowdsourced funding collecting $75k to continue their operation, motivated by the wide support they received from the public.
The startup hired 6 full-timers to continue to provide its free service and recruited the help of part-timers during peak operating days.
“Live Love Recycle currently serves 5000 users impacting more than 20,000 people If we consider that each household consists of 4 people on average. We have stopped promoting the app for the period as we are growing at the rate of 12% every month without ads and with the limited budget we are operating at capacity,” explains Georges.
Recycling is a commitment
“People usually dismiss recycling efforts all together because they are uneasy about the sorting process. They get confused by which items to sort and how. We use the app and our social media platforms to share information on what can be sorted and what we recycle so we can simplify the process for them. That combined with free, on the spot pick-up should provide enough incentive for people to sort, no?”
The garbage issue is not unique to Lebanon. 3 billion people around the world have no access to recycling facilities, even in developed countries, where people are not even aware that their garbage is not being recycled. At least the crisis that happened helped awaken the Lebanese to the situation of their garbage, which is not the case in other countries,” explains Georges who firmly believes that his startup can alter that reality not only in Lebanon but anywhere else in the world.
“While many recycling facilities in the country are operating at 40% of their capacity, the solution for us is not only recycling, it is to reduce at the source. We also use the App as a platform to build awareness around that along with the social media platforms, but that is not all. Every week, the team has a workshop with a business or organization to spread awareness on the importance of sorting and recycling.”
After pick-up, the bags are delivered to the startup’s warehouse where they go through another quick sorting before being sent to the recycling facilities. The startup offers all the recyclables for free to arcenciel.
“We have connected with other recycling initiatives in the country. We also work hand in hand with municipalities as our work cannot replace what should be done by the government. Our main objective is to connect to all recycling initiatives so we can all benefit from the app and its data.”
A long entrepreneurial journey
“Three years after developing our idea and searching for funds, we received a grant in 2018 from BMZ, through the World Food Programme to build a prototype and test it out over 1 year. After that, we were recognized by multiple organizations across many countries for our work. We’ve also won many awards and have received a lot of attention from the local and international press.”
Today the startup is being accelerated in France and have joined the Impact Rise scaling program at Berytech.
The enrolled entrepreneurs now have the chance to grow their startups by developing their business skill sets, boosting their operations and sales, accessing new markets, meeting with impact investors, and connecting with local and international support networks. “It takes time to find a sustainable business model, and very often, social entrepreneurs cannot find the funds or resources to help them scale up,” comments Krystel Khalil – Programs Director at Berytech. “So, over the next 2 years Berytech will ensure the growth of the social entrepreneurs enrolled in the Impact Rise program, like Live Love Recycle, and their ability to sustain themselves and operate on their own.”
Starting June of 2020, Live Love Recycle will be launching a new version of the App, expanding the type of recyclables they will be taking and monetizing their service. “We’ll be charging a small fee of around 3,000 LBP per pick-up if the user chooses a monthly or annual subscription covering only Beirut for now. To be able to operate outside of Beirut, we will need to expand our logistics, which includes more trucks, warehouses, a bigger team, and even volunteers. If people are willing to support this, we are open to this expansion. But before anyone asks us when are you planning to expand? I’m hoping they could ask us what can we do to help you grow?” repeats Georges as the impact of any social startup only expands with the commitment of its community.
Life as an entrepreneur
Georges goes on to explain, “I was living in Mozambique, making enough money but very unhappy. I came back here [Lebanon] to the crisis and I wanted to do something. This gave me a purpose. When I started I did not have a billion dollars. Money should not be a problem. You will find the funding you need if you think of how you want to get it.
As a social enterprise we are picking up recyclables for free and we have created a collection service that was non-existent in Beirut impacting the lives of thousands. There are people who, because of garbage, now have work opportunities.
Yes, there are many challenges in this country but each one of those challenges can be turned into an opportunity. I’m not saying it’s easy. Maybe if you work outside of Lebanon you make it bigger and faster, but we only have one Lebanon. This is our country. This is our identity. If something is bothering you in this country instead of nagging about it, work on it and find a way.”
If you are interested, you can download the Live Love Recycle App here.