Saturday,25 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Saturday,25 May, 2019
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Treasure out of trash

What many people look upon as rubbish may in fact contain hidden treasure, writes Farah Al-Akkad


Treasure out of trash

Many stories have been written putting the spotlight on the garbage problem in Egypt. However, the problem still remains. Some blame it on the government, while others believe it is a matter of awareness and social responsibility. Trapped between what is right and what is wrong, the smartest are those who look between the lines.

Among those people are some creative young men and women who have decided to make a difference, presenting new solutions to a long-term problem. A number of interesting initiatives to deal with the problem of rubbish began to surface after 2011, all driven by passion and eagerness to make Egypt a better place.

In 2015, the Eye of the Environment (EE), an NGO located in Maadi near Cairo, transformed what was originally a garbage dump at Kotseeka in Cairo into a colourful environmental compound that is considered the first of its kind in Egypt. The landfill was a contaminated space and a potential source of disease. Volunteers from the NGO took it as their goal to create a place that would be green-friendly, aiming to spread the culture of green living among the residents of the area.

Established mostly from recycled materials, the compound today is a model of the concept of sustainable living and green building standards. The project’s first step was cleaning the area, as “cleaning the streets of Egypt was a dream of the 25 January Revolution,” said Ahmed Moawad, co-founder of Eye of the Environment, who was determined to make a difference in one of Cairo’s most crowded districts where people had not really been aware of the environment.

 “Like many poorer neighbourhoods in Cairo, people there mostly worry about their daily life troubles, and living in a clean place or giving back to the environment is something they are hardly aware of or is the least of their worries,” commented Nadine Al-Alfi, an environmental awareness coach who has worked with garbage collectors and has given a number of workshops called “from trash to treasure”.

Sorting out the tons of garbage at Kotseeka was not an easy job. The team had first to make people aware of how it would benefit them and their children. “The most important way to deliver the message of thinking green to people from underprivileged backgrounds is to make them see how it will pay off for their well-being and that of their children,” Al-Alfi explained.

With the help of the people of Kotseeka, a solid waste recycling unit was established in the compound. Today, many residents and people from other neighbourhoods bring sorted garbage items to the compound. “It has become a habit. It is amazing how a poor or underprivileged family whose members have received very little or no education have learnt how to sort garbage and even participate in the recycling process and are also making their children be part of it,” Al-Alfi added.

One of most interesting innovations at the new environmental compound is the “buried garbage” dump. In an effort to make sure the place is entirely clean and not one single trash item is wasted, the team created a buried garbage bin in a hole under sand in which people can throw trash and it is not taken out except when completely filled. Plants grow all around in hydroponic units (without soil), and today the compound is a platform for all sorts of hands-on activities related to a better environment.

There are recycling bins around the place and in all the streets of the neighbourhood. The green ones are for plastic waste such as bottles, and the blue ones are for organic waste such as food. Others are for paper waste and glass. The compound also contains a solar panel unit and a biogas unit for recycling organic waste and producing methane gas to generate electricity.

Moreover, the workshops on “trash to treasure” held by Al-Alfi in schools in Maadi and elsewhere target people from higher social classes. “To my surprise, I found that people who live in areas such as Heliopolis and Zamalek and those who usually come from a higher social and educational background also lack awareness when it comes to how they get rid of waste or how to sort out their garbage,” she said.

Besides her efforts in rural and underprivileged areas around Cairo, she also focuses on teaching the parents and children of schools and kindergartens located in such areas. “I focus on children because this is what will make a difference in the future. When a child grows up knowing the basics of living green or in a clean society instead of throwing banana peels out of his Dad’s Mercedes, and if he learns how he can benefit from this to make his environment a better place, then maybe things will change.”

“It has nothing to do with being rich or poor. It is about having the will to make a difference, whether you come from Zamalek or Imbaba,” she stressed.

A father and his son on their way to sell their rubbish

FANTASTIC PLASTIC: Initiatives related to recycling plastic in particular started in 2012, and at the same time Azza Fayad, now 22, was one of the first Egyptian young people to use catalysts to create biofuel. A number of initiatives circulated through university students in which plastic items were collected and experiments were conducted to produce such fuel.

“If these initiatives were taken into consideration by the government, they could transform our economy. But unfortunately such voices are hardly ever heard, and we are still trapped in the vicious circle of start-ups that may not continue or government announcements that are never really put into practice,” Peter Samir, a volunteer at EE, said. 

Originally starting in Zurich in Switzerland, the Plastic Garbage Project that has been started in Cairo is an information campaign aiming to raise people’s awareness about the danger of throwing plastic away, since it could end up as a serious form of pollution, notably in the sea and on beaches. Organising beach and underwater clean-ups, the project started in 2014, when the team involved collected hundreds of plastic items and surprised everyone by putting on an exhibition that transformed these items into wonderful colourful decorations.

“Not a single cubic metre of seawater today is entirely free of plastic particles,” the organisers say, adding that the plastic we cannot see is just as important as the plastic that we can. Greenish is another project that aims to make pieces of art out of the plastic bags that most people throw away, holding workshops with the goal of raising people’s awareness of how plastic waste can be transformed into marvellous art pieces.

Driven by concerns about Egypt’s environment, young people Amr Fathi and Mustafa Khairat have created an environmental app for mobile phones which they believe could be the waste-management solution Egypt needs. Environ reform is an app that allows people and also the government to monitor services relating to the environment and even give feedback on the job.

“The goal is to have the application be used by the government and residents of the areas concerned. As things stand, if you have a complaint about jobs being done, there is no one way to file a complaint. We allow this to happen, and at the same time we’re providing the government with a monitoring system without asking for anything in return,” Khairat said.

Another important problem is electronic waste, which can be a cause of cancer. However, most people’s knowledge about electronic waste is almost zero, and this e-waste, consisting of electronic devices that are no longer in use such as mobile phones, computers or TVs, when dumped can be extremely dangerous as it contains poisonous substances such as mercury and lead.

In 2012, Ezzat Naaim, founder of the Spirit of Youth for Environmental Services, an NGO, came up with the idea of disposing of this e-waste properly by creating awareness, collecting e-waste, and finding solutions on how to manage it. Naaim managed to gather over 6,000 dumped electronic devices and later on signed deals with different electronics companies to be able to collect, sort out and properly recycle their e-waste.

“Everything from televisions to batteries is dumped with normal waste. With medical waste like syringes, it’s easy to explain to communities why it is hazardous, but with a TV it’s more difficult,” Naaim explained in an interview in 2012.

Workers sorting out garbage

SELL YOUR GARBAGE: The idea of encouraging people to make money by selling their rubbish was launched by the government in Cairo last March, establishing kiosks in different neighbourhoods where people are encouraged to sell their cans, plastic bottles, paper and cardboard instead of throwing them away.

Aiming to raise people’s awareness about the importance of recycling and sorting out garbage, the initiative started with two kiosks in Heliopolis district, and others are planned in Zamalek and Maadi.

“Many kids are excited about the new initiative. They wait until after school and come along with their parents to sell cans and plastic in order to earn some extra cash,” said Ibrahim Hassan, in charge of one of the initiative’s kiosks on Aswan Street. Aluminium cans are bought for LE10 per kg, plastic is for LE3 and cardboard LE1. Paper and glass range between LE0.20 and LE0.80 per kg.

Even though environmental experts claim the project is encouraging “because people need the money and why would someone not benefit from LE30 or LE40 for their rubbish instead of throwing it away,” others believe the initiative could soon fade out in districts such as Heliopolis and Nasr City.

“People are excited to try something new and have some fun, maybe taking their kids a couple of times, but at the end of the day we are talking about people who buy cappuccinos for LE30. They will not really care about the money, and it will not motivate them. In order for this initiative to succeed, people must understand the issue and be willing to do it even if it is for free,” said Walid Gamal, a resident of Nasr City.

“The money factor is essential for such a project to continue in a country like Egypt. No doubt some people’s main concern is the cleanliness of the streets and a healthy environment, but people won’t be motivated to contribute to the project as they are now if there is no money offered,” Yehia Al-Rawi, a kiosk owner in Heliopolis, told the Egyptian Independent in an interview.

On the other hand, the Zabbaleen community, which traditionally has collected Cairo’s rubbish, has expressed definite dislike of the initiative. Many members of this community that has been working on collecting garbage and recycling since the 1940s have inherited their jobs from their fathers and grandfathers before them. “The Zabbaleen community collects about 40 per cent of Cairo’s waste, 85 per cent of which is recycled. This figure is double or triple that of any European or American city,” a study by the American University in Cairo has revealed.

Andrew Naaim, the grandson of one of the Zabbaleen garbage collectors, inherited the job and will pass it on to his children. “The new kiosks will not give us even half of what we earn per day. It is nonsense, and even if I want to know about the initiative no one has officially addressed us. At the moment, it is just hot air,” Naaim said.

Gamal Mustafa, in charge of a kiosk in Nasr City, commented that “unlike what the media is saying, the Zabbaleen community is not working with us, and we are just working with people who live in the neighbourhood.” Egyptian state TV has reported on several occasions since the launch of the initiative last March that the Zabbaleen community will have a role in the process and will be present in it. However, things are different on the ground.

Nermine Talaat, the owner of a new recycling booth in Heliopolis, believes the initiative is an investment supported by the government. “I liked the idea when it was offered to me because I was thinking about it for a long time but didn’t have the know-how to proceed, which is what led me to get in contact with a friend of mine who worked with MPs Nadia Henry and Sherine Farag, whose idea it is. I told them I was thinking about this idea, so I was encouraged to join them,” Talaat said in a TV interview.

“It’s all very complex. She perhaps doesn’t understand the long-term effects of the situation. She thinks it’s simple to get a kiosk and buy things and end of story. But it’s not,” said Hoda Shoukri, co-founder and volunteer at the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), an NGO, in an interview. Shoukri argued that the issue of garbage recycling has many question marks hanging over it, particularly the lack of official statements by the people in charge. According to an article published by the newspaper Al-Gomhoureya in March, “there is no transparency as to how the kiosk owners were chosen and where the profits are going,” she said.

In addition, a representative of the Cairo Garbage Collectors Syndicate, Shehata Al-Muqadis, stated in an interview with the news website Al-Monitor in March that “the state needs to do more to integrate sanitation workers into the new system and to take into consideration the social dimension, as the initiative could mean the loss of livelihoods for thousands. The state ought to learn from past mistakes after having contracted with foreign cleaning companies between 2002 and 2017, which was a failed experiment,” he said.

But MP Sherine Farrag defended the idea of selling garbage to kiosks, claiming that it will not affect the status of garbage collectors from the Zabbaleen community but will in fact protect their rights. “The Zabbaleen are actually the ones who will be dealing the most with the kiosks at an even higher price than they used to [making] by themselves. No one has been harmed by the initiative so far. The problem has been created by boss-men who do not want the people or the Zabbaleen to know the real value of their garbage,” she stated.

Ali Al-Terawi and Seif Bahgat, both residents of Heliopolis and neighbours and friends who went to the same school, have been used to sorting out their garbage since they were teenagers because they saw their parents do it. “I think it has to do with how someone is raised. If you were raised to not throw any trash outside the basket and you have seen what your parents do and don’t do, you will imitate them later in life. It has nothing to do with being rich or poor,” Bahgat said.

Now 29, Al-Terawi added that “I have recycling bins at home and sort out garbage automatically without looking. I have got used to it. I go to the kiosk near my place about three times a week. Of course some people still see it as a waste of time, even though they are educated, which is why campaigns and initiatives should focus first on raising people’s awareness, not just in underprivileged areas but also in more affluent districts,” he said.

According to the media, Cairo alone produces an estimated 19,000 tons of waste on a daily basis. Approximately 75 million tons of trash ends up on Egypt’s streets each year. Industrial waste may end up in the Nile. The process of waste management in Egypt consumes around LE2 billion ($111 million) annually.


PAST EXPERIMENTS: In 2002, the government signed contracts with international waste-management companies, and the Zabbaleen were marginalised.

However, according to Khairat, co-founder of Environ Reform, in an interview last October, “the companies hired didn’t work properly because performance wasn’t properly monitored. For example, if you have a contract with the government for LE1 million a month for a certain number of units, you only receive the million after the work has been judged or graded. If you receive a grade of 80 per cent, then you get 80 per cent of the LE1 million. The problem was that there was no structure to this system and no way to log penalties, so they were easily manipulated,” he said.

“With little oversight at a time when corruption ran rampant, it became noticeable to many that waste management was better under the Zabbaleen than under the foreign companies.”

In 2009, the government acknowledged that solid-waste management was not working under the foreign companies. Both the government and NGOs discovered that there was a lack of structure with little supervision in relations with the Zabbaleen.

In December 2013, the Ministry of Environment launched a campaign entitled “Separating Waste at the Source” to develop new techniques for solid-waste management and the process of collecting, transporting and recycling Cairo’s huge amounts of trash. At the time, minister of environment Laila Iskandar stated that “there has been no formal framework or strategic planning in the waste-disposal sector and responsibilities and tasks are not clearly allocated. The sector is significantly underfinanced and has an enormous need for long-term investment.”

In a 2014 statement, the ministry said that this could be done through “the state’s policy towards supporting partnerships with the private sector [PPP partnerships] and activating the articles of Law 67/2010 regulating the private sector’s partnerships in the state’s development projects.”

At the moment, approximately 60 per cent of Cairo’s solid waste is managed by formal as well as informal waste collection, either governmental or by NGOs. The process of disposal and recycling is carried out either by Zabbaleen, or through NGOs, or local and multinational companies, with an estimated 0 per cent in rural areas and 90 per cent in higher class districts being recycled.

According to a report by the German Cooperation Organisation GTZ 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.”

“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.”

Al-Alfi believes “the whole issue can be solved if we take into consideration three main aspects: raising people’s awareness, a well-structured system that monitors both collectors and residents, and building trust between government and NGOs. Then proper waste-disposal systems can be put into action.”

add comment

  • follow us on