A recycling artist calls for better plastic waste management


Caroline Chaptini, 39, is a recycling artist, holder of three Guinness World Records, in 2020.
Even though she does not consider herself an environmental activist, her work has inspired many young people to pay more attention to waste management and to join recycling initiatives.

Caroline Chaptini holds her Guinness World Records certificate at her home in Lebanon. Photo: UN Women/Lauren Rooney
Caroline Chaptini holds her Guinness World Records certificate at her home in Lebanon. Photo: UN Women/Lauren Rooney

Chaptini’s interest in recycling and upcycling started a few years ago, when she wanted to lose a few extra pounds and she was advised to drink a lot of water. “I kept the empty water bottles - 500 of them - in a box. I called several organisations to collect the plastic waste, but they never showed up. It was around Christmas time, so I decided to make a home Christmas tree out of plastic bottles, with the help of my daughter Sophie. Visitors were impressed by the result and encouraged us to make it on a bigger scale, which I decided to do, a few months later”.

Soon she would start reading about the terrible impact of plastic on the environment, including on marine life, and it really shocked her. The project she was about to launch would bring international recognition to Lebanon and would help keep the community clean.

Setting her first world record was a difficult task, as she had no money for her project and did not know where to start. One day she pulled herself up and said:

“Caroline! You are Lebanese and you are a woman, so you can do anything!”. I resorted to social media and posted stories on Instagram about my project, asking people to send me empty water bottles, instead of throwing them away”.

People across Lebanon interacted with her story and nudged social media personalities asking them for support. The municipality of Chekka (a coastal town located 64 km from Beirut) secured the budget she needed to buy the metal used for plastic bonding. To collect more bottles, she rented a bus and organized “Plastic Bottle Drives” in Beirut, the South and the North. With the help of the community, she collected 140,000 bottles in a period of seven months and completed her Christmas tree in Chekka within 20 days in December 2019.

Thanks to the tree of 28.1 meters, she won her first World Guinness Record, on 14 January 2020, for the Tallest plastic bottle sculpture ever made. “I spent ten hours a day on-site to complete the work, surrounded by hundreds of volunteers. The project brought people together,” she said.
A few months later to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan and show the world how diverse Lebanon is, she made the largest Crescent mosaic out of plastic bottle caps. This project coincided with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was impossible to find a sponsor, and her hometown Miziara was in a complete lockdown. In 30 days, she managed to complete a 196.94 m² Crescent on a terrace next to her house. The caps were blown away by the wind three times and she had to reattach the pieces every time. It brought her second Guinness record on 30 May 2020, for the largest bottle cap mosaic.

When the Beirut port Blast occurred in August 2020, it left everyone in despair. “I live in the North, 95.2 km away from the capital, but I was also devastated and wished to lift people’s morale. This is why I realized a 300.2-meter square flag of Lebanon, the largest recyclable material mosaic ever made from plastic bottles, thanks to which I was able to achieve my third Guinness World Record on 14 December 2020. I became the first Arab woman to hold three Guinness records in one year”.

Chaptini is aware of the impact human actions have on the planet and its inhabitants and how the lack of waste management strategies in Lebanon, including plastic waste, is incurring huge environmental and public health costs. “Most of the plastic used by humans is thrown away in the sea and ingested by fish that we eat. Plastic waste is not only polluting the sea but also causing severe diseases to us humans,” she said.

Ever since she started her projects, many community members have changed their views on recycling. She believes the young generation is eager to keep the environment green and is searching for alternative means to replace plastic. “They just need encouragement,” she said, “I was invited by Universities to collaborate on recycling through art projects, and university professors told me that their students look up to me as a role model. My knowledge of climate change is minimal, but I am contributing to society by collecting and donating several tons of plastic to the Kids First Association in Jbeil, which provides medical treatment for children under 18 who suffer from life-threatening cancer and blood diseases.”

Chaptini believes that the most urgent aspect of climate action in Lebanon today is to fight plastic pollution.

“If I collect five tons of plastic for every project I complete, and if I realize three projects a year, this means that, at the individual level, I can prevent 15 tons of plastic from ending up in forests, streets, and at sea, over the course of one year. It gives me a lot of joy to know that I am making Lebanon cleaner.”

Chaptini tells everyone to dare to dream, “Nothing is impossible, make a change in your community, regardless of those who try to bring you down.” “When I first launched my recycling projects, people would sarcastically refer to me as Abu Ibrahim* like the gentleman who works as a cleaner at the Miziara municipality. I would reply, saying, ‘since I am a woman; please call me Em Ibrahim! (Mother of Ibrahim)’.”

“I set my first Guinness record at 36. I never imagined myself doing something even close to recycling. Since then, I truly believe that you can create something out of nothing. Ten years ago, I got divorced. People used to refer to me as ‘the divorcee’. Ever since I embarked on this journey, I became ‘the woman who has won World Guinness Records”, she concluded

*The prefix Abu means “father of”, a man tends to be known to society as the Abu of his eldest son.