Sell Your Garbage: Egypt's new recycling initiative brings hope for some, threat to others

Zeinab El-Gundy , Thursday 13 Apr 2017

A new initiative that pays cash for your sorted recycling may be putting Cairo's average garbage collectors out of business. Project founders contend that everyone can benefit from the new way of doing business

Sell your Garbage Kiosk
A "Sell Your Garbage" Kiosk in Heliopolis (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

In early March, Cairo’s Heliopolis district witnessed the launch of a new initiative titled Sell Your Garbage that sets up kiosks to buy solid waste from the public for resale to recycling contractors.

Within days the initiative had achieved such high success that other districts in and outside Cairo expressed interest in expanding the programme, drawing criticism from Cairo's existing garbage collectors who fear it will threaten their livelihoods.

Sell Your Garbage operates on a simple idea: citizens sort their own trash and recycling, and drop off their solid recyclables at the kiosks, in exchange for cash.

Two kiosks have opened so far in the middle and upper class district of Heliopolis, while the project founders have advertised the campaign in mainstream and social media.

MPs Nadia Henry and Sherine Farag are behind the initiative. The two presented the project to Cairo governorate and Heliopolis district officials, gaining their agreement to launch it on a small scale.

“The idea of [Sell Your Garbage] depends on the team that deals with garbage, starting with the source of waste at homes, shops, restaurants and hotels. After that, we have the garbage collector,” Henry told Ahram Online, saying she sees the initiative as part of a bigger plan to change waste management in Egypt.

“Currently, we are in the experimental phase as we have another two weeks before we will present the results from the two kiosks to the ministries of local development and environment,” she said, adding that it would be better to show results on the ground to executive authorities, rather than “words on paper."

Ahram Online visited one of the kiosks located on a quiet side street between upper middle class and working class neighbourhoods in Heliopolis just four days after its opening.

The large aluminium kiosk stood covered with colourful banners and signs with big words in Arabic explaining its purpose and giving instructions to the public on how to sort and deliver their recycling.

The kiosk
The "Sell Your Garbage" kiosk is covered in banners with information on how the service functions (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

Another banner gives the rate paid per kilogramme for each item, including cans, card boxes and glass bottles.

“The prices of the items change daily according to the prices in the informal recycling and scrap market” Hany Ebeid, the supervisor of one of the kiosks told Ahram Online.

A graduate from the faculty of commerce, Ebeid is in his 30s and used to work in tourism but as business dimmed over the past couple of years in the once-successful sector, he began to search for other jobs.

He currently supervises two workers at the kiosk, who receive the garbage and categorise it to be sold later to private recycling contractors.

Henry says that each kiosk is a micro-franchise owned by a manager who is facilitated by the district and the governorate to become licensed and approved.

“This project can help in reducing unemployment in Egypt," she said.

In the kiosk, huge piles of sorted recyclable waste stood in bags next to a couple of electronic scales used to weigh the garbage. 

Inside the kiosk
Inside the "Sell Your Garbage" kiosk, an employee demonstrates for the TV cameras how the garbage is sorted (Photo:Zeinab El-Gundy)

“The project is successful; we managed to buy from people and sell enough solid garbage to recycling contractors within two days of the opening and will sell another pile of sorted garbage to the recycling contractor today as well,” Ebeid said.

While speaking with Ahram Online at the kiosk, Ebeid was interrupted by a fragile old man carrying a small pile of cartoon card boxes.

The old man gave him the pile through the kiosk’s window and Ebeid measured it on a small electronic scale.

According to the scale, the boxes weighed about two kilogrammes. Ebeid gave the man about EGP 2 according to the price per kilogramme on that day. The man took them and left quietly. 

Selling the garbage
A man sells cardboard boxes at the kiosk (Photo:Zeinab El-Gundy)

“He is an old homeless scavenger. He has been coming here several times in the past four days with stuff he grabbed from garbage nearby, after we explained to him what we do exactly,” Ebeid said.  

For Ebeid and his team, the “live experience” and “word of mouth” are the best marketing tools to spread awareness about the project.

“People come in the early morning and ask about the kiosk and what we are doing. After understanding they bring us their sorted garbage by the end of the day,” he said, adding that they work from 9am to 5pm seven days a week.

“We do not have holidays or days off,” Ebeid said, adding that he hopes the project will succeed in the long-term.

Standing outside the kiosk
Citizens and a photographer outside the new "Sell your garbage kiosk" that created a buzz in Cairo last month (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

Anger and rejection from the 'other team members' 

Despite positive reactions from government, media and citizens, Sell Your Garbage has been met with complete rejection by some of Egypt’s private garbage collectors.

“Some garbage collectors are jobless now,” Shehata Meqadas, head of the garbage collectors syndicate told Ahram Online when asked about the project only six days after its limited launch in Heliopolis.

Meqadas, who says he informally represents around 3 million garbage collectors, has openly and fiercely criticised the project since day one to Egyptian media outlets.

“I respect MP Nadia Henry, but this initiative is not for the sake of [improving] hygiene in Egypt; is for commerce. Those kiosks are fooling the citizens,” he said.

Meqadas said he sent his employees to observe the two kiosks, where they discovered that one sold a kilogramme of cans to scrap and recyclable traders for EGP 20 per kilo, a mark-up of EGP 11 from the nine they had bought it for from the public that day.

“Those who want to truly improve Egypt should plan for a complete project that won’t exclude the garbage collector. They should suggest the opening of two kiosks: one for one solid wastes and another for organic wastes,” he said.

“The kiosks are buying solid wastes only right now, leaving the garbage collectors to deal with organic waste full of decayed food remains, baby diapers and sanitary pads full of bacteria,” he said.

In Egypt, garbage collectors earn their true living from sorting garbage and selling the solid wastes to scrap and recycling traders and factories, not from the fees they receive from citizens.

Henry and Farag, however, said that when they presented the project, they did not forget the garbage collectors or the organic waste.

They said that the treatment of organic waste, and converting it into organic fertilizer is an upcoming step in the project.

“The garbage collectors are also part of the original team in this project. They come directly after the source of garbage [in the chain] and we respect them, but they are currently not enough to face the garbage problem in Cairo alone,” Henry said. 

According to the liberal MP, Cairo produces about 15 to 17 thousand tonnes of garbage daily. She thinks that currently, the garbage collectors deal with only 25% of that waste.

“Also, let’s agree that truthfully the way the garbage collectors deal with waste currently is hazardous to their own health as well ours,” she said.

The Ministry of Environment stated in 2016 that Egypt produces 23 million tonnes of waste annually. For decades, the country has suffered from huge garbage and waste problems that increase as the size of population increases.  

Inside the kiosk
Piles of sorted garbage inside the "Sell your garbage" kiosk (Photo:Zeinab El-Gundy)

In 2003, the Egyptian government contracted with foreign companies to collect and manage garbage in the Greater Cairo area — which includes Cairo, Giza and Qalyubia governorates — where residents are required to dispose of garbage in large bins in front of buildings where it will be picked up by garbage trucks.

The programme required residents to pay extra fees for garbage pickup on their monthly electricity bills, depending on where they live. Many people rejected this new arrangement and saw it as an extra economic burden on average citizens.

Many also criticised the arrangement by saying it had not achieved its goal: cleaning up the streets of Cairo.

In late March, Farag announced that she was going to file a lawsuit at the State Council against the minister of environment to prevent him from renewing the contracts of the foreign contractors this year.

According to the MP, the government spent nearly 2 billion Egyptian pounds in 15 years on those companies, on an effort that did not resolve the garbage problem in Egypt at all.

As most garbage in Cairo is not sorted and divided into solid and organic wastes due to the lack of awareness, the garbage collectors bring it to where they live to sort it themselves, mostly in the heavily populated Manshiyat Nasser — also known as "garbage city."

There, where more than half a million people live in extreme poverty, entire families, including women and children work on sorting solid and organic garbage in their own homes, without the benefit of any health or safety precautions.

The solid garbage suitable for recycling is sold while the rest — mostly organic waste — is buried in landfills, burned in incinerators or fed to animals, also with minimal health or safety oversight.

In 2010, there were 52 recycling factories in Egypt, yet their end products rarely reach the local market. According to media reports, most of those factories’ production is exported to India and China.

For Henry, that recycled material could be used in Egypt to spare it from importing so much raw material. She says this is another issue the project aims to eventually address.

“The way garbage collectors deal with and sort garbage now makes them lose about 40 percent [in potential earnings]. Spreading awareness about sorting garbage at the source would reduce that to five percent,” Henry said.

Ebeid told Ahram Online that some garbage collectors had in fact come to sell the garbage they collected, sorted just as instructed.   

 “We want to help the garbage collectors and to make them upgrade their performance, giving them a fair share of profits in addition to the public and kiosks owners,” said Henry, adding that the “garbage collectors’ tycoons” monopoly on the industry should end in Egypt.

Still, Meqadas was not the only voice expressing concerns and objections to the project.

Other MPs in Egypt’s House of Representatives have voiced similar concerns, going so far as to present questions to the Prime Minister over the project.

MP Mona Gaballah of Manshiyat Nasser attacked the project, saying the kiosks were unlicensed officially, made garbage collectors jobless and were funded by NGOs.

“It is very sad, what MP Gaballah has said so far,” Henry told Ahram Online, adding that Gaballah had supported the project at first and wanted to implement it in her constituency.

“She retreated in the face of huge pressure from her constituency in Manshiyat Nasser — from garbage collectors and traders," Henry said.

When it comes to the accusation that NGOs stood behind the project, the Heliopolis MP insisted that no NGOs had been involved so far. 

“Still, there is nothing against the participation of NGOs in such a project” she added.

So far, the criticism has not stopped Henry and Farag from going forward with their idea, which does not end at kiosks. They describe the project as a first step towards greener economic policies and an overhaul of the way garbage is handled in Egypt completely.

Meanwhile, Meqadas says that he cannot hold the angry garbage collectors from escalating the matter, or bringing it before the country's parliament and president. 


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