Meet the 24-year-old behind Kuwait’s plant-swapping recycling project

Early in life, Fatemah Alzelzela saw a problem in her country.

“If you walk around the streets of Kuwait, you won’t see any recycling bins at all,” Alzelzela told In The Know. “We don’t have it. We don’t have a system where you sort your waste and put them in bins and hand them to people who deliver them to recycling plants.”

According to the United Nations, 90 percent of Kuwait’s waste ends up in a landfill. Alzelzela knew she was facing an uphill battle, but not an impossible one. Even at a young age, she was confident she could make a difference.

Alzelzela, now 24, studied electrical engineering in college, but after graduating in 2018, she paved a different kind of career for herself. That’s when she founded Eco Star.

Eco Star, the recycling organization Alzelzela launched just a little more than two years ago, has recycled 133.5 tons of waste since early 2019. It’s an initiative focused on a simple but effective concept: to “reward” people for recycling — with plants.

The exchange is as straightforward as it sounds. Anyone who turns recyclables into Eco Star will find themselves the owner of a brand new plant. It’s an elegant solution in a country where so much of the land is covered by desert.

“Kuwait is a very big desert,” Alzelzela said in an interview with the UN Environmental Program. “We don’t have enough green areas.”

In her mind, Eco Star tackless two of the nation’s biggest problems at once. Her work is getting noticed, too. In 2020, Alzelzela was recognized as one of the UN Environmental Program’s “Young Champions of the Earth.” The honor is as elite as it is wide-spanning: Last year, the program selected just seven honorees from all over the world.

Then there’s Eco Star’s own following. The initiative is getting noticed on social media, too — on Instagram, the organization has more than 21,000 followers. Still, that increased attention has come with its setbacks.

“[I’ve] had comments like, ‘You are very young,’ ‘This is a field for men’ [or] ‘You don’t really fit here,” Alzelzela told In The Know “But all these things, I was expecting them, honestly speaking. I was fine with that. I know that I’m going to face these types of challenges.”

Even as young as she is, Alzelzela is able to shrug off the hate. She’s proud of Eco Star and the impact it’s made so far.

“Honestly, this is the thing that I’m most proud of in my whole life,” she said. “I haven’t done anything [this] big before.”

Aside from her own success, Alzelzela also wants others to see Eco Star as a testament to her home country, which, thanks to her initiative, has gotten a chance to prove its appetite for sustainability.

“[Eco Star] proves that people, or Kuwaitis, are ready to be a part of anything that helps the environment and taking action — good action, and positive action — but they didn’t have the chance to,” she said.

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