Egypt goes green: Eco-friendly home alternatives

Mai Samih , Friday 24 Sep 2021

More and more people are turning to eco-friendly furniture and other items to furnish their homes

Al-Sherbini
Al-Sherbini

Over recent years, more and more people have been buying environmentally friendly products for their homes, like cement tiles instead of ceramic, and furniture made of recycled materials like tables made out of old wooden doors or chairs made from agricultural waste like palm tree fibres or rice husks that would otherwise be burnt on farms. 

In addition, some factories are now reusing leftover marble to make eco-friendly tiles that can be used in gardens or as aggregates in construction. This is an example of what is called “green business” in which a company aims to achieve a minimal negative impact on the environment. 

According to government statistics, the sectors now going green in Egypt represent 60 per cent of the real economy. To encourage more of these sectors to go green, the government has also launched its Pollution Abatement Programme. 

Many furniture design studios are turning to making furniture out of materials like tyres to decrease the negative effects of using other materials that may decrease resources and pollute the environment. Whole compounds are even being built out of recycled materials such as recycled concrete tiles and limestone, including a settlement built by architect Sarah Al-Battouti in Bahreya Oasis in the Western Desert.

Mariam Korachy, also an architect, comments on the use of reused materials inside and outside homes. “Reused materials from old houses can be used for a variety of things like the wood of an old floor that could be used for a ceiling of a new house or as parquet flooring or to make furniture since wood is multi-purpose,” she said. “It depends on what the owner of the house wants to do with it and how creative he is,” she added, saying that such reclaimed wood can be used for fences, tables, or even a whole kitchen. 

“Recycling includes a wide range of activities such as reusing objects or reshaping them or making the rubble of old houses into cement for building new ones,” Korachy said, adding that experiments are also underway to get rid of debris more efficiently and in a more environmentally friendly way.

There are no set places in which a reused piece can be used at home. “The use of metal depends on the needs of the home, the taste of the person using it, and the designer. It can be used both indoors and outdoors, however,” she said, adding that if old wood is used in areas in which there is a lot of water a designer should take care to paint it with water-resistant material so that the water does not ruin it. 

“Reused wood in Egypt is used by many people outdoors. However, I think that it is okay to use it indoors as well,” she added. 

“In general, every effort to recycle any type of material, albeit a small one, is a step towards saving the planet and is better than destroying it, which adds to pollution,” Korachy said. For her, the best building material is the traditional one of mud because it is long-lasting and does not pollute the planet.

“If we imagine that after 70 years a mud-brick house is demolished and next to it a concrete house is also demolished, there would be a great difference between the two in terms of pollution since the concrete would emit far more carbon dioxide and leave a greater mess,” she stated.

“I think that this trend of reusing old materials is the way out for humanity. In Europe, people are practicing what is called bio-design, a method of building houses using natural materials like plants.”

According to Korachy, people also do not have to be rich to reuse old materials. The poor reuse objects spontaneously, for example. They may reclaim objects such as plastic containers and metal objects, even if it would be costly to build a whole building using debris.

She gives a simple example of one of the essential components of a house. “When it comes to buying wood, it is always cheaper to buy old wood than new. It just takes the will to reuse material and enough support for this trend to go on. If the interior design is simple, it will surely match the style of the building,” she said, adding that people should keep in mind the function of each object they use at home instead of provoking chaos by using too many unnecessary ones. 

There are many natural materials that are good natural alternatives to the current materials used in homes. “Reusing objects does not have to be in the field of antiques alone,” Korachy said. “People could use palm tree fronds to build homes, for example.” 

“Cement tiles are good to use, and part of the reason people started to use them is that they are trying to preserve the heritage of handmade tiles,” she said. “Moreover, the manufacturing process causes less pollution than porcelain tiles, since the latter emit more carbon dioxide when they are made and affect the health of the workers making them. Plain handmade tiles are a cheap alternative to marble tiles.” 

“The more we imitate nature through the materials we use at home, the closer we get to better physical and mental health,” Korachy said. “People should keep in mind what heritage they are leaving for the generations to come.” 

TRADITIONAL TILES

Although ceramic and porcelain tiles are composed of natural materials like clay, feldspar, and quartz, some types may contain toxic additives in their pigments and glazes like lead. 

While the majority of binders are safe, the use of urea-formaldehyde in some imported flooring is not since this contains formaldehyde which is harmful to the respiratory system and causes short-term eye, nose, and throat irritation, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. 

A healthy, eco-friendly alternative is the cement tile. These were used by the ancient Greeks and then the Arabs to decorate mosques and palaces. 

Rabie Mahmoud, 73, is a cement tile-factory owner in the Dar Al-Salam district of Cairo. “I started working in this field in 1964. I didn’t have a workshop at the time, so I started as an apprentice and then I became a worker and then a professional tile-maker. There was no one in my family who had worked in the field before me — only one of my acquaintances who let me work in his workshop when I was about 10 years old. I started making tiles when I was 12 years old,” he said.

“Handmade tiles started to be known when the Turks came to Egypt. When I was young, there were many workshops making tiles. We added colours and mosaic styles that were unknown to the Turks,” Mahmoud said. 

The colours, what are called oxides, are bought in the Al-Rewayei district of Cairo and are either imported from Germany or China or made in Egypt. Mahmoud still buys the same types of colours from the same place. The German ones are the best because they last longer, he said. 

He added that “the craft of tile-making is the same in terms of manufacturing. However, it is different to the ceramics that have been flooding the market for decades now.”

“We take Samalouti clay [from Samalout] and mix it with white or grey cement. We then make it into a paste and mix it with pieces of marble. We put the mixture in an iron mould, cover it with a mixture of cement and sand, and press it in a pressing machine. Then it is left to dry on a wooden stand. Afterwards, it is submerged in water and polished in a glazing machine.”

Mahmoud
Mahmoud
Mahmoud photos: Salma Mohamed

Sometimes they use moulds in the shape of flowers or geometrical shapes filled with coloured cement. They also use different types of marble. In the past, they would use a manual press to make the tiles, but in the 1970s they turned to electric presses, Mahmoud commented. 

“We make many types of tiles, like mosaic tiles using alabaster or marble, as well as tiles with geometrical drawings or plant drawings on them,” he said.

The tiles are very affordable. “The mosaic and white cement tiles are sold for LE48 per metre. Mosaic and grey cement is LE45 per metre. Tiles with marble are sold for LE60 per metre. Tiles in coloured geometric shapes could range from LE100 to LE120 per metre,” he said, adding that the tiles can be used anywhere in the house, including in living rooms, bathrooms, kitchens or even gardens. 

According to Mahmoud, all types of cement tiles are healthy since the cement and the sand used in them are natural materials. Even so, many consumers prefer mass-manufactured ceramic tiles.

“In the past, people would buy tiles from us for their homes. They would choose mosaic tiles and sometimes they would choose tiles in geometric shapes. They would come from upper-class districts like Agouza and Dokki. But today the older generations know handmade tiles more than the younger ones,” he said. 

Many challenges face Mahmoud and others working in his industry, among them expensive raw materials. A sack of cement costs LE300, whereas in the past it would cost LE10 to LE12, which is a huge leap in prices. As for colours, he buys oxides for an average of LE50 to LE80 per kg of imported colours and LE30 to LE40 for Egyptian ones, according to type. 

A ton of crushed marble is now sold for LE2,000. This leaves only a small profit margin. “We only have a profit margin of LE10 per tile,” Mahmoud said, adding that he has never participated in fairs to display his work, but he is ready to do so if given the opportunity.

“Our main problem is the lack of marketing. To make handmade tiles is costly because it needs materials and well-trained craftsmen. Our problem is that skilled craftsmen go and work elsewhere because we have no customers,” Mahmoud lamented. “In the past, we would train young craftsmen who would become skilled in the field. But now people neither want to learn the craft nor work in the field,” he says, adding that even his own son who used to work with him now works in a marble factory. Only four craftsmen are currently working in his workshop.

“I have only worked for 10 days since January, and I get electricity bills for an average of LE700 each month,” Mahmoud said. 

Al-Sherbini
Al-Sherbini
Al-Sherbini art work photos: Salma Mohamed

OLD AND MODERN ART

“A couple of years ago, I became interested in materials that were sold from old houses like old doors, windows, and railings. What attracted me was their aesthetic value,” said Walid Al-Sherbini, an artist who has been working in the field of recycling objects for new uses.

“The objects were mostly made in the early 20th century, and the techniques used by the artists then to make the iron work and the pieces in general no longer exist nowadays. My objective was to preserve the Egyptian artistic heritage by reusing these pieces,” he said.

He has a shop in Souq Al-Fustat in the Old Cairo district next to the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque where he specialises in sculpture and the renovation of antiques, a subject he studied at university. He now makes new pieces of furniture or decorative pieces out of older ones, helping to save them by recycling and giving them a new lease of life. 

 “First, we seek the old pieces or materials and choose suitable ones in terms of artistic value. There are some types that are common, while others are rare,” Al-Sherbini said, adding that they do not work with rare pieces for fear of spoiling them.

 “As for more common pieces like old windows, we wash them, treat them for pests, remove old paint, renovate them if need be, and then start to think what we will make out of each one.” Examples of rare pieces are some types of metal railings and the Egyptian, Belgian, English, and French glass that was used in old buildings but is not manufactured anymore even in its countries of origin.

“There is almost nothing from old houses that cannot be reused. The old wood is reused. The old tiles can be reused. Even the railings of the balconies and stairs can be reused.”

There are some pieces that give him more options for reuse, while others are limited in the things they can be used for. The metal from the railings of old houses can be cut into pieces and made into chandeliers or tables, mirrors, chairs or benches. Metal has many options when it comes to reuse, Al-Sherbini said. 

He also gets materials by traveling to other governorates to buy unwanted pieces from old houses or going to markets and contacting contractors who sell materials from old houses. 

Items that his team makes that are in demand by customers include mirrors because of their aesthetic and practical value. Tables are also in demand, whether coffee tables or corner tables or even tables for televisions. These are all used in modern houses. 

His customers are both Egyptians and foreigners “We have customers who might buy a mirror as a present for someone and customers who own hotels and want to furnish them with furniture made from reused objects, especially in places that want to preserve the environment or in eco-villages. We have a variety of age groups that buy our products, like young people who are interested in buying a souvenir, or an older person who is interested in buying an artistic piece,” he said. 

Al-Sherbini is also inspired by the ancient Egyptians and Coptic styles in his work. He is particularly inspired by kabati, a type of clothing embroidered with coloured threads, and this inspired him to make a mosaic of a peacock.

“The culture of reusing objects or recycling has now spread in Egypt, making it one of the countries that has developed most in recycling materials like plastic, copper, and iron since a lot of people work in this field. However, reusing objects in an artistic manner has not spread as much,” Al-Sherbini said, adding that the latter is still done mostly on the level of individual workshops.

A main problem is overpriced materials. The average price of a metre of a three-millimeter mirror that was LE120 is now LE200, for example. A cubic metre of wood was LE5,500 but is now about LE10,000. A ton of metal was LE13,000 and is now about LE16,000 to LE18,000, according to type. 

Finding or training skilled craftsmen in the field is difficult as many will seek to find an easier way of earning a living. Another problem is the lack of marketing, especially after the coronavirus pandemic that has affected tourism and so decreased the number of customers. 

“In the future, I would like to make more sculptures,” Al-Sherbini said. “I dream of a museum in Egypt that will preserve the styles and techniques of architecture and the artistic pieces of the 20th century.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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