On the rooftop of a building in Cairo’s El-Zaytoun neighbourhood, Nabil Mahrous, a 48-year-old employee of the country’s education ministry, is tending to some unlikely residents: a colony of imported earthworms.
“I got fed up with the rubbish on either side of the streets, so three years ago I decided to dabble in the state's activities to curb the garbage problem in Egypt, by turning organic waste into organic fertiliser,” Mahrous said.
He decided to devote the vacant space on his roof to his new project: turning ordinary household waste into compost, with the help of his earthworms.
Rubbish is normally divided into three types: liquid waste; solid waste such as cans, plastic, cartons, and glass; and food waste, which is organic material.
If the organic matter is recycled it results in natural compost that can be used for cultivating agricultural crops, instead of being buried in landfills as usual, Mahrous told Ahram Online.
Mahrous has no academic experience in environmental or agricultural studies, but he has discovered a passion for the work.
“I grew up in a rural community so I am aware of the importance of green areas, both for the environment and for health,” he said.
“I have always hoped to spread this kind of project so it can be applied as an activity in Egyptian schools and the students can learn, and use their energy in something useful as well,” he added.
Co-founder of plant a tree, Nabil Mahrous organization while sorting the garbage (Photo: Madgdy Abdel-Sayed)
How it works
The project relies on earthworms, normally Tiger worms or Red Wiggler worms, which feed on organic material and in the process produce the compost naturally.
Mahrous imported Red Wigglers two years ago via the Central Laboratory for Agricultural Climate, in order to start his work.
Then he began to collect plant waste, like tree leaves from the street, food waste, and vegetable market leftovers, to feed his new worms.
One kilogram of worms can eat up to one kilogram of organic waste, he said, adding that each kilogram of worms can produce another four kilograms of worms every two months, so there is no need to import them more than once.
The resulting nutrient-rich compost is a soil conditioner and fertiliser that can help various types of crops, Mahrous added, or can be beneficial for the soil.
He has used his compost to cultivate different kinds of crops such as sugarcane, oranges, avocadoes, mandarin oranges, and mangoes, in addition to other kinds of fragrant and medicinal plants.
According to Mahrous, the effect has been dramatic; his sugarcane, for instance, has grown up to 6 metres high with the help of his new fertiliser, instead of the normal 2.5 metres.
Tomatoes and other fruits' leftovers in the garbage
'Plant a Tree'
Garbage container full of weathered tree leaves ( photo Magdy Abdel sayed)
Recently, Mahrous got together with 30 others who were interested in the field, and they decided to take their work to a whole new level, establishing a non-profit civil society organisation called "Plant A Tree."
He and his colleagues took one of the landfills in Hadaeq Al-Qubbah district in Cairo, which they had converted into a garden, as the headquarters of their group.
The organisation aims at solving environmental and health problems.
The amount of space at the headquarters has allowed them to allocate larger spaces to the waste containers, and establish worm farms to process more of the waste. It has also given them the opportunity to experiment with their project on a large scale, planting different types of crops.
The workers at the organisation often start their day by collecting bio-waste from the streets and vegetable markets or from people directly, to be prepared as food for the Red Wiggler worm farms.
Sanitation workers extract only the solid waste when they collect rubbish and ignore organic waste because they think it is less important, one of the Plant A Tree workers told Ahram Online.
"Leaving the organic waste in the streets leads to the proliferation of mosquitoes and flies which taint the environment and spread disease," he added.
The group has planted more than a million trees at Cairo’s 57375 hospital and Magdi Yacoub Hospital in Aswan, in addition to at some schools.
They also launch occasional societal initiatives to plant trees in the streets in cooperation with neighbourhood officials.
Mahrous wants the government to provide more material and moral support to the non-profit, which at the moment has no official support and depends on its members for funds.
"We hope all mass media shed light on the organisation's work and that the citizens support us by buying our products, which are sold at nominal expense," Mahrous added.
Earthworms while feeding on organic waste (photo: Magdy Abdel-Sayed)
Solving the garbage problem
Sample of the extracted compost (photo: Magdy Abdel-Sayed)
Some areas in Egypt suffer from significant piles of rubbish in the streets, which is attributed to various factors, one of which is the delay in waste collection by sanitation workers in some areas. This problem leads some people to throw their household rubbish into the streets.
In addition, solid waste is always first to be recycled by recycling firms, unlike organic waste, which does not receive the same attention.
According to local reports, Environment Minister Yasmine Fouad told the parliament in April that only 20 percent of rubbish is recycled, while around 80 percent goes to landfill.
“We [Egypt] have a plan to increase the volume of recycling up to 80 percent within seven years,” the minister added, noting that there are three products that come out of waste: organic fertiliser, alternative fuel and thermal energy used to produce electricity.
“Organic fertiliser production technology and alternative fuels exist in Egypt but need to improve in quality,” she added.
Egypt has tackled the issue via several steps, starting with establishing the Waste Management Regulatory Agency (WMRA), and launching the national programme for solid waste management, to restructure the waste sector and raise awareness about the issue.
The Egyptian government has also established a holding company for managing waste, after years of reliance on foreign garbage collection companies, with little progress.
The problem of organic waste left in the street is a serious one, with potentially harmful impacts on both the environment and on residents’ health.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) advises, in order to reduce the causes of air pollution, that organic waste be separated from other kinds of waste, and turned into compost or bio-energy to improve soil fertility and provide an alternative energy source.
Recovering bio-waste has become an essential part of recycling process around the world, in countries like Germany, Belgium and Malaysia, among others.
According to the federal ministry of environment in Germany, bio-waste constitutes around 30 to 40 percent of municipal waste in Germany.
organic waste container (photo: Magdy Abdel- Sayed)
orange fruits cultivated by plant a Tree initiative (photo: Magdy Abdel-Sayed)
Egypt is currently supporting all small and medium-sized enterprises like this project, Hussein Abaza, a senior advisor at the environment ministry, told Ahram Online.
“Turning bio-waste into compost has positive impacts environmentally and economically,” he stressed.
He pointed out that Egypt has a small number of recycling firms compared to the amounts of agricultural waste produced annually, which is up to 30 million tons, so it is important to support such initiatives, especially given that the amount of recycled waste is just 2 percent.
Growing plants on rooftops is an international trend at the moment, he noted, and it can help in reducing the temperature and absorbing carbon dioxide, in addition to increasing oxygen.
“Instead of burning the waste, causing pollutant emissions, we can turn it into compost to be used in the agricultural process instead of chemical fertilisers,” he added.
This could save the government lots of money, he said, as it subsidises the compost sold to farmers.
“We should encourage these initiatives as they have positive effects on the environment,” Magdy Allam, environmental expert, told Ahram Online.
“However, we have to raise public awareness of the importance of using two garbage containers in homes first, to separate the solid waste from organic at an early stage,” Allam added, noting that this step would save money by avoiding the need for the private sector to sort the waste.
Allam pointed out that recycling in Egypt is still limited and it should be increased through large firms.
"Only about 20 percent of Cairo’s waste is currently recycled," he said.
Egypt has a huge amount of organic waste which should be turned into agricultural compost, he said, especially as there are countries like China which buy this waste due to its potential benefits.
It is hard to object to turning your waste into a beneficial product, and Plant a Tree is set to launch a social training programme for ordinary people who would like to implement the project in their own homes.
According to the group, all you need is adequate space to accommodate your waste, preferably on the roof, and a small amount of earthworms.
In addition, you need to start getting used to putting your waste into two separate containers, the first for solids and the second for organic waste. This step will facilitate the recycling process.
The second step is to get a number of plastic crates to put the waste in. Then you need to organise them in layers, inserting the worms.
Two months later, the worms will have converted the waste into a natural fertiliser which can be used to help a wide variety of trees, plants and crops grow.