Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Stop it

Ending Egypt's tolerance of trash is a must, writes John Harris*

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Egypt's garbage has generated considerable attention in the international press recently. My friend assures me it was front page news in Stockholm a few weeks ago. Similarly, a recent front page of the New York Times outlined the story, well known by now to Cairo's residents, of how the culling of the Zabbaleen's swine stock in response to the H1N1 virus caused this trash picking community to stop collecting organic waste, causing a massive pileup of waste on Cairo's streets.

Most of these stories dwelt, accompanied by dramatic photos, on the mountains of trash piling up on curbsides. But the much less reported aspect of this story is that these piles of trash have always been there, albeit a bit smaller. For even before the breakdown of the age-old symbiotic relationship between the Zabbaleen and Cairo's trash, Cairo was a dirty city. True, some cities are dirtier (Naples, for one, was until recently much dirtier), and true, some dirt isn't such a bad thing. (I'm reminded of a friend of mine, recently moved from Cairo to Singapore, who longed for the "creative confusion" of Cairo's streets, and struggled against the excessively ordered and manicured communities there).

But it's difficult to paint an attractive picture of the level of garbage found on Cairo's streets, and around the rest of Egypt in general. Drivers toss whatever they're through with out of the window of a moving car. Construction rubble is left where it lies, or is discarded, barely disguised, on a neighbor's lot. Trash clogs the country's irrigation canals, leaving behind an inert clot of trash where once irrigation water flowed. Out in the desert, with nowhere else to hide, plastic bags, that most eternal of trash, billow about as an eyesore on an otherwise dramatic skyline, unwanted and eternally there. Trash from last summer's party season still blots the landscape on one of Egypt's most pristine beaches on the north coast.

Littering is culturally acceptable in Egypt, and there is a cultural acceptance of garbage as an integral part of one's everyday life. Though a family home may be spotless, just outside the front door, or downstairs at the building entrance, trash accumulates. There is a strict division between private and community space. Private space is preserved; public space may be abused. Littering is acceptable throughout the socio-economic spectrum; litter is just as likely to emerge from latest model BMWs as it is from donkey carts.

Most proposals for improving Egypt's solid waste management, including those described in these pages, include a range of technical and administrative solutions to dealing with Egypt's garbage. These are undeniably critical pieces to the solution. But in order for change to be sustainable, and for Egypt's garbage situation to truly change, these technical solutions must be accompanied by a shift in public consciousness regarding garbage and community hygiene, toward an awareness that garbage is a problem, that littering is a personal issue for which we all hold responsibility, and that collectively society must summon the will to act to change. Without this, any technical solutions implemented are bound to fail, overwhelmed by the cultural imperative of trash.

Describing the problem is, of course, the easy part. The greatest difficultly is in taking effective action, in bringing about a profound shift in public awareness. But these problems are not insurmountable. Many countries have found themselves in similar situations, and most have made substantial progress within a matter of years, and certainly within a generation. For example, in the USA during the 1960s and 70s, littering was commonplace. The interstate highway system in particular was a major repository of trash. Today, things are substantially different. In most areas, even discarding a cigarette butt is socially unacceptable, if not illegal. Indonesia today is going through a comparable process.

Successful campaigns addressing public consciousness of garbage and cleanliness share at least three central components: legal threats, societal shame, and an appeal to societal virtue. Shifting public consciousness is driven by these three central agents. Step one is to legally address the issue by making littering a crime, accompanied by a realistic enforcement mechanism. In the famous American song "Alice's Restaurant" by Arlo Guthrie, the central character is embroiled in as series of humorous confrontations with the law after being caught illegally dumping garbage. Being caught littering carries financial and/or jail penalties. Such penalties are regularly enforced.

Alongside this legal disincentive is an emotional one. Littering must become shameful. Society must emphasize a communal respect for a shared clean environment, and littering should be seen as spoiling precious collective resources. Litterers are shamed into compliance. Societal pressure from respected peers is a highly effective enforcement tool. Finally, this threat of societal shame is accompanied by the virtuousness of cleanliness. Gandhi once famously said that cleanliness is next to godliness, and emphasizing the virtuous aspect of proper waste disposal and community litter collection has also proven effective.

Children are an effective vehicle for these transformational messages of public awareness related to garbage. Children have open minds, and are thus receptive to lessons of virtuous waste practices. In their role as the leaders of tomorrow's society, they are critical constituents in ensuring a long-term solution to the problem. In addition, children can serve as effective issue ambassadors today, and are able to bring sound waste disposal practices home to their families and communities. My six year old daughter recently brought home from school the slogan that littering is "mean to Mother Earth." If being unkind to Mother Earth was not a sufficient disincentive to stop me from littering, then the potential disapproval of my daughter certainly would be.

Sociologists' Broken Windows Theory has interesting implications for the garbage debate. According to this theory, more crime happens on streets where home windows are broken, and remain unfixed, signifying the absence of community bonds, and a general community tolerance of social decay. Likewise, streets that are well kept tend to have lower crime rates. A potential burglar is much more likely to strike on a poorly kept street; with so much decay already in place, who's to notice just that much more? On the other hand, the orderliness of well-kept street, signifying a community which cares, serves to dissuade prospective thieves.

This theory would suggest that in Egypt, where littering is the norm, it will be difficult to change such pervasive habits. Changing the behavior of a single individual, when most everyone is behaving differently, is a difficult process. However, the theory also suggests hope. Once community awareness reaches a certain point, momentum will shift the other way, and a virtuous cycle of improvement will be initiated, with citizens taking greater responsibility for the cleanliness of their communities, just as a street that attains a certain level of orderliness will suddenly see a decline in the overall crime rate. A critical point is reached after which societal filth is no longer an option.

The situation in Egypt does a grave disservice to its cultural heritage, its proud and historic civilization, and its beautiful natural endowment. The size of the problem is daunting. There is hardly a vista in this beautiful country unblemished by the blight of trash. While the technical and administrative solutions being proposed are important, and certainly will help, true solutions to the problem will be doomed to failure until a new culture of cleanliness is instilled throughout society. Many societies have gone through comparable transitions in the past, and a total shift in cultural consciousness with respect to trash can be realized within the space of a generation. It's time to clean up Egypt. It's time for a shift in the dialogue of dirt.

* The author is a writer living in Cairo

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