More and more governmental and non-governmental initiatives in Egypt have started to make use of the country’s unwanted waste by producing useful objects out of it, including furniture and buildings, and campaigning against the use of one-use plastic items to save the environment.
According to a study by the Ministry of Environment, 22 million tons of plastic are used per year in Egypt, including 12 billion plastic bags, most of them in groceries (25 per cent), vegetable and fruit shops (20 per cent), supermarkets (17 per cent), and other shops. According to UN statistics, in 2010 Egypt had about 10 per cent of the world’s share of mismanaged waste, and it is projected that it will still have the same share on a global basis by 2025.
According to a 2015 UN environment report, plastic bags and the styrofoam used in foam cups and plates can take thousands of years to decompose, contaminating soil and water and posing significant ingestion, choking and entanglement hazards to wildlife on land and in the oceans due to the light weight and often balloon-shaped designs. Marine litter can harm over 600 marine species. If plastic bags are ingested by fish, they can enter the human food chain.
For all these reasons, various organisations in Egypt have decided to take action.
Advisor to the Minister of Environment Hussein Abaza started an initiative a month ago to make furniture out of recycled agricultural waste, for example. The initiative started with an event where he invited people to display the furniture they had made out of waste. The campaign focuses on making use of trash that has gone through many recycling phases and is now difficult to re-use.
“The idea is to teach people how to save resources. This is a lifestyle that Egyptians should turn to and is one of the goals of sustainable development. It is simply about re-using agricultural waste and unwanted objects that are often thrown away to make beautiful things like furniture at home instead of taking up a lot of space in the ground that could otherwise be useful agricultural land,” Abaza said, adding that by spreading a feeling of collective responsibility people could be encouraged to be more creative with their domestic waste.
They could make tables or chairs out of leftover wood, for example.
Hamed Al-Mowsely, a professor at the Faculty of Engineering at Ain Shams University in Cairo, took part in the event. He had the idea of using date palms to make into furniture after curing the wood to prevent pest infestations. “He is a pioneer in the field,” Abaza said. “There is also another organisation that uses the waste from palm trees to make bags and curtains,” he added.
Such furniture could protect houses from heat and even be a source of oxygen. So instead of burning waste like rice straw in rural areas, farmers are being encouraged to re-use it in a way that could be lucrative for them and that would help to save the environment.
“I would like to spread the idea of using agricultural waste to make useful things on a nationwide scale,” Abaza commented.
Another idea is to use waste as a building material. Nine months ago, professor of engineering at the American University in Cairo Mohamed Abu Zeid started an initiative with six undergraduate students and two graduate students to re-use industrial waste in buildings.
“We use industrial waste from various industries for buildings. This type of waste is harmful to the environment if it is dumped,” he said, adding that what started as a student graduation project had now developed into practical construction work.
“The students have continued to work on the project with other engineers and myself,” Abu Zeid said.
Construction out of waste
“The construction industry is an essential industry that touches everyone’s lives. However, the industry is not that green for many reasons,” Abu Zeid explained.
“First, it produces a lot of waste. Second, it consumes a lot of energy, for example in manufacturing cement and other raw materials. Third, it emits a lot of carbon dioxide. This is why we have to find a more environmentally friendly approach to the industry,” he said.
One approach is to try to replace materials with industrial waste. This type of waste occupies land and may not be biodegradable. It may remain in place for a very long time, maybe hundreds of years, and it can cause other types of pollution. Using it in construction can replace conventional material that is environmentally harmful and more expensive.
“Because of our work we are getting material of better quality that is more long-lasting. Its properties are getting better over time,” Abu Zeid said, adding that they also recycle material with defects. This can be mixed with concrete for construction instead of polluting the environment.
“So far, we have made a prototype of a one-room building. We wanted to be realistic and to manufacture it in a simple way that people could see,” he added. “Waste materials are in different shapes and types, so one of the challenges is to sort them out before use to make a consistent supply. For example, if I am going to use plastic, I want it to be free from other materials,” he said, adding that popular involvement could be used to help sort out the waste more efficiently so it could be used in construction.
“In the next phase, we plan to go to one of the informal areas and use waste materials as much as possible to construct a few small buildings. We want to show the feasibility of the technology and the ease by which people could build these buildings,” he said. “We want to transform poor quality buildings into something of better quality by using the waste materials that are all around us and to help to create jobs.”
“I dream of a whole city applying the recycling method and building with these materials,” Abu Zeid concluded.
Another idea is to end the use of plastic bags or to make use of eco-friendly alternatives. In Al-Hussein and Al-Azhar in Cairo there are workshops making paper bags for grocery stores to replace plastic bags. Other shops and restaurants in areas like Zamalek have stopped using plastic containers for food. Some supermarket chains in Dokki and Mohandeseen have started providing their own cloth bags for customer use.
Radwa Ahmed, an architect, felt that she should take action to stop using plastic altogether at home. For this reason, she started Akhdar (Green), an initiative that encourages people to stop using plastic and show them alternatives on her Website Matgar Akhdar (Green Shop), a non-profit that shows places where people can buy green products.
“It all began after I had heard of the harmful effects plastic has on our lives. So, I decided to decrease its use in my house as much as possible,” Ahmed said. For example, she stopped using plastic bags altogether and started using alternatives like cloth bags that she would take shopping. She even stopped ordering products in plastic bags and now looks at what products are environmentally friendly, not buying them if they are not.
“I found that I was forced to buy things that had no environmentally friendly alternatives in Egypt. This is why I started Matgar Akhdar. I found that there were also others who needed the things I did, so I began to make them available on the page. It does not aim to make a profit as much as to provide people with a service,” Ahmed said, adding that some people were aware of the dangers of plastic for the environment but did not have access to the alternatives they should use.
This should be changed through awareness campaigns in local markets, she said. Her husband helps her in eliminating plastic from their household as well as in administrating the Website and the marketing process.
“Some people think that we as a third world country do not cause that much pollution or have that great an effect on the environment. They think that they live in a bubble isolated from the rest of the world and that when they do something it only harms them and not others. It needs a great effort from the media to reverse these ideas,” Ahmed said.
People should preserve the environment and give other creatures the right to live. All the world’s religions direct people to stop harming the environment and the creatures living in it, she said.
Alternative solutions replacing the use of plastic bags
(Photo courtesy of Matgar Akhdar)
Ahmed explained that an environmentally friendly product means one that can last a lifetime.
For example, cloth nappies rarely wear out and are more environmentally friendly than disposable ones. Metal straws can be re-used, and Ahmed sells various alternatives to everyday plastic products, among them straws and wooden toothbrushes.
“You may end up going out with a bag full of environmentally friendly stuff that you may not use, but if you think about the positive impact you could have on the environment it will be worth the trouble,” she said. Sometimes there are things she has to buy in plastic packages because there are no alternatives to them, like dairy products and pre-packed foods in plastic. However, she only buys recycled plastic.
“I think the best solution would be for the state to start recycling projects on a national basis. Rubbish is a resource that could be recycled. They could make fertiliser out of it or natural gas, for example. The state could also impose a culture of using recycled products on stores. Although the alternative packages could be a little more expensive, they would be in compensation for the wrongs we are doing to the environment that our children will live in,” Ahmed said.
Today, she plans to make Matgar Akhdar more of a real shop like the famous brands that sell environmentally friendly products around the world. She is also considering other ideas.
“I would like to see the site as a store selling alternative products and environmentally friendly products. I would like to see it organise events that raise people’s awareness with new ideas and have lots of participation from others. The idea is not only to preserve the environment, but also to simplify life and to re-use resources,” Ahmed commented.
One step the state has taken was the banning of plastic bags in Hurghada, when some 50,000 cloth bags were distributed for free by the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, together with a letter explaining the health and environmental reasons behind the campaign.
According to the Ministry of Environment, plans have been afoot to decrease the use of single-use plastic bags nationwide. The first phase was in 2017 when research recommended that people use biodegradable bags or cloth bags instead. Producers, media representatives, governmental institutions, NGOs, and consumers then met to launch a national initiative to help raise awareness about the dangers of plastic bags and the alternatives that should be used.
Seven supermarket chains joined the initiative, and the ministry produced 350,000 biodegradable bags and distributed them for people to use. The campaign spread to clubs whose volunteers cleaned up the River Nile.
In the second phase launched in July 2019, the ministry distributed 10,000 biodegradable bags in the Red Sea governorate and organised a workshop to inform people of future plans.
In the four months to come, it plans to increase the number of awareness campaigns. It will study the outcomes of the ban on plastic bags in the Red Sea governorate and study its implementation in others. There are also attempts to issue a law to regulate the sale of plastic bags and to ban plastic bags that cannot be recycled easily. There are also plans to use advanced technology to produce biodegradable bags with the help of the international companies that specialise in the field and meet Egyptian standards.
The ministry has been working with other ministries to design appropriate incentives, including tax cuts. In the third phase of the initiative from January 2020, the ministry wants to set out a national code of conduct and to ban the use of plastic bags altogether.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.