Monday,22 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)
Monday,22 April, 2019
Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s garbage problem

Refuse produced by Egyptian households and businesses has been piling up for years, causing eyesores and posing health hazards, writes Farah Al-Akkad

Al-Ahram Weekly

Walking along the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, one can hardly miss the piles of trash on almost every street corner, even in upscale districts.

There seems to be no solution to the garbage problem, which has become a normal part of Egyptian daily life. Environmentalists say that the problem goes further than just garbage collection and includes poor social behaviour and a lack of environmental awareness. Physicians warn of the possible health hazards.

In old films portraying the streets of Cairo in the 1930s and 1940s, men in tailored suits and women wearing fashionable dresses stroll along city streets. Although the films are in black-and-white, the cleanliness of the streets cannot be missed.

In these scenes, captured more than half a century ago in places like Tahrir Square, Sayeda Zeinab, the Citadel, one hardly sees any garbage on the ground, making one wonder just what has led to the enormous contrast with the situation today.

Between the 1950s and the mid-1990s, the method of garbage removal in Egypt remained unchanged. Rubbish collection around Cairo was mostly done by rural-urban migrants living in northeast Cairo, in the Zabaleen district. The district is named after its residents and has come to mean the people who collect trash.

 According to research conducted by the American University in Cairo in 2009, the estimated population of the Zabaleen district is between 50,000 and 80,000 people, with some 30,000 working in the garbage village located in Mokattam. Several generations of the village’s residents have worked in recycling waste collected from Cairo neighbourhoods.

 “My father and my grandfather before him worked as garbage collectors, particularly in the areas of Heliopolis and Nasr City,” said Amir Adel, a 60-year-old resident.

“My father, who rode a donkey cart, used to go to 20 to 30 buildings to collect each apartment’s garbage every morning and was paid a monthly income of LE2 by each in the 1990s.

“He brought the garbage up to the village where workers helped sort it into materials such as plastic, glass, and paper, to make it ready for sale to recycling companies. Solid waste went for recycling, and the rest was used as organic waste to feed pigs.”

Adel’s father passed away in 1997, only a couple of years after the government started to consider switching the job of garbage collection to local and international companies. At the time, the Ministry of Environment said that the change was needed to expand services, particularly because of Egypt’s growing population.

Hussein Khalil, a 70-year-old resident of Agouza in Cairo, recalls how people welcomed the government decision at the time. “People were tired of seeing ugly donkey carts in districts such as Heliopolis and Dokki,” he said. “They wanted to see an improvement.”

 In 2003, the government contracted foreign companies to take charge of the capital’s garbage collection. Refuse from each building was collected by doormen and put in large bins in front of the building to be picked up by specially equipped garbage trucks.

The change obliged residents to pay an extra LE3 to LE9 on their monthly electricity bills, depending on where they lived. The era of paying garbage collectors LE2 or LE3 when they knocked on the door seemed to have ended.

But the extra charge soon provoked a wave of public anger. Some people refused to pay, while others went further and filed a case against the government in court.

“The case was admitted because it stated that, based on the constitution, the government had no right to oblige citizens to add garbage-collection costs to electricity bills,” Khalil recalled.

Some years later, the People’s Assembly passed a law that gave the government the right to include such costs and electricity fees on one bill. However, the law still faced public opposition.

Khalil remembers a friend, the owner of a chandelier shop, saying, “I have lights on most of the time and I pay a lot of money for it. But I hardly have any garbage, so why should I pay extra for it?”

Growing concerns: Major efforts were made to reach an agreement with the original garbage collectors from the Zabaleen district and provide them with monthly salaries paid by the new companies in charge of garbage collection.

However, there were still complaints from both the garbage collectors and Cairo residents. Said Adel, “The companies did not provide enough trash bins to cover all areas and the trucks have not received proper maintenance for years.”

The concerns were not unfounded, since the AUC study showed, “The Zabaleen village recycled about 85 per cent of the capital’s collected garbage [while] the companies recycle about 20 per cent only of the waste they collect, with a total net weight of eight tons a day in Cairo alone.”

 A 2011 World Bank report warned that Egypt loses “0.4-0.6 per cent of its GDP due to the inefficiency of solid-waste policies and because only 60 per cent of the waste produced in Cairo is actually ‘collected’.”

Unofficial figures indicate that the zabaleen still collect about 8,000 tons of garbage a year — more than half the daily output — and the companies about 3,000, leaving much of the remaining 6,000 tons on the streets.

Garbage is recycled only in Cairo and Alexandria, while the garbage of less-privileged governorates and also that left on the streets in the country’s two largest cities is dumped in the desert, in the six government-operated dumps, or, more often than not, in canals and the Nile River, posing serious health hazards.

The private companies have their own landfills, but a small quantity of the trash they gather is actually recycled.

Meanwhile, the garbage collectors from the Zabaleen village have continued to do “the job we inherited,” as Adel puts it, even if they are not as free to do so as they were before.

Some Zabaleen residents have confessed that they have bribed district councils so garbage trucks will not take all the garbage and will “leave some for us,” Adel explained. “The companies were not as efficient as people hoped they would be,” he added.

The zabaleen are unhappy with the government’s restrictions on their businesses. They were reluctant to collect organic waste after the slaughter of their pigs in the fight against swine flu in 2009.

The companies do not have enough dumpsters and, even when these are available, many Cairenes are reluctant to throw their garbage into them because they are used to having the zabaleen come to their doorsteps. Fights broke out between the companies and the zabaleen over collecting schedules and routes and dumpsters were stolen.

According to a recent article posted on the US website the Huffington Post: “The government waste department can’t cope, the companies don’t have dumpsters, or the zabaleen don’t come through. So on any given day, or stretch of days, a given neighbourhood becomes a ‘no-man’s land’ of garbage. Though there are diggers who take what can be recycled and sell it to the zabaleen, leaving food scraps strewn on the streets.”

Minister of the Environment Laila Iskandar was recently quoted in the local press as saying, “The [foreign] companies didn’t do a good job, and they weren’t regular [in their collections]. They weren’t experts in managing, so they fell apart.”

She called the contracts with the multinationals “a disaster”. Giza has “disentangled itself” from these contracts, she said, but Cairo “is still caught up in their throes.”

Today, one cannot walk through the streets of formerly clean districts without noticing piles of trash mounting up on every corner. Garbage collectors search through the piles for items of value and then dump the rest back on the streets. Etimad Ali, a 60-year-old Heliopolis resident, insists that neglect and public attitudes have a lot to do with the problem. “No matter how hard the government tries to make things better, people do not cooperate,” she said.

“After the 25 January Revolution, I saw young people cleaning the neighbourhood. But after a couple of months, the new bins they had bought were stolen and garbage was all over the place again,” she added.

The working-class district of Dar Al-Salaam is a far cry from the district of Heliopolis, but both seem to be having the same garbage problems. Residents and shop-owners alike are forced to throw their trash onto pavements and street corners.

“The big trash containers provided by the government get stolen,” one resident said. “It is the same story all across Cairo. The trash is now hardly picked up by the authorities at all.”

 A resident of Imbaba said, “Pick-ups now happen every two weeks. You can imagine the revolting scenes of rubbish thrown out by residents, shops and even restaurants, which is then left on the streets for days.”

Other residents who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly claimed that the authorities responsible were actually bribed by some residents who benefit from collecting and selling the trash, which is why it is not picked up more thoroughly.

Environmental hazards: According to a report by the German Cooperation Organisation GIZ in April 2014, “Despite national and local efforts to tackle the solid-waste management crisis in Egypt, improper waste-handling, storage, collection, treatment and disposal practices still pose serious environmental and public health risks.”

 The major challenges facing the sector include inadequate planning and legislation. “In 2012, Egypt generated 89.03 million tons of solid waste, including municipal solid waste of 21 million tons, agricultural waste of 30 million tons, and hazardous medical waste of 28,300 tons,” the report said. “A major challenge with regards to the management of municipal solid waste is the lack of adequate collection equipment.”

According to the Ministry of Environment, “This has been the result of both poor maintenance and the lack of resources to increase and modernise collection and treatment equipment.”

Meanwhile, much of the “uncollected” waste is dumped into rivers, canals and the streets, which leads to widespread contamination. “Most of the generated municipal solid waste ends up in open, public and random dumpsites, causing a serious threat to public health and the environment” the report said.

“Cairo has always suffered from a huge pollution problem, mainly because of the lack of sufficient solid waste-management systems and poor sanitation habits,” said Kamal Khalil, an environment researcher at Cairo University.

He stresses that different parties should work together to find a solution. “The problem cannot be solved without engaging the community and without making them aware of its importance.”

In December 2013, the Ministry of Environment launched a national campaign to improve the solid waste management system in Egypt by focussing on developing the system of collecting, transporting and recycling the country’s garbage.

In August 2012, a trial operation of an Environmental Observatory Units project was launched in eight neighbourhoods of Cairo. According to GIZ, in charge of the project, it is a result of cooperation between the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and the Cairo governorate.

The project uses IT to monitor the performance of waste-management and city leisure companies and reflects the importance of introducing information technology in all state bodies to improve their performance.

“The project’s objective is to establish an integrated control system of the waste-management companies’ performance and to link the central management of performance control and the Environmental Observatory Units in various districts of Cairo,” according to GIZ.

The Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs has also established a public-private partnership project (PPP) to facilitate the operation of huge environmental projects that will be implemented with the private sector.

In a 2014 statement, the ministry said, “PPP operates in accordance with the state’s policy towards supporting partnerships with the private sector and activating the articles of law No 67 of 2010 regulating the private sector’s partnership in the state’s development projects.”

Khalil believes that efforts should be focussed on community participation, and what the general public can do to assist in waste management. The GIZ report summarises the main areas where citizen participation could make a difference.

These include “managing wastes within the household and removing them from the premises, reducing waste production (through consumer choices, reuse and repair) and facilitating recovery for recycling (through source separation), keeping public areas of the neighbourhood clean, supporting city or regional projects for improvement, allowing rational decisions on suitable disposal sites or methods, and supporting value changes in industry, government and citizenry that impact on solid waste problems.”

Egypt has many hidden treasures, and garbage is one of them, according to Khalil. “It can be transformed from what is an ongoing and threatening environmental hazard to an exceptional national treasure through the efforts of the people and the government,” he said.

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