Egypt's environmental health: Taking waste seriously

Mahmoud Bakr , Friday 22 Mar 2019

With the introduction of 27 new schemes to manage solid waste in Egypt, the government is testing radical solutions to environmental and health hazards, reports Mahmoud Bakr

Disposing of solid waste in Egypt

Despite government efforts to manage the problem of accumulating solid waste, none have yet resulted in pinpointing a sustainable solution. The Ministry of Environment and other bodies have embarked on countless initiatives to get rid of waste, but a well-planned, long-term scheme had not been found.

The target is to dispose of existing waste and to build a comprehensive and sustainable system to manage the country’s solid waste. The reasons why this has so far not been achieved include the limited capabilities of municipalities, hindering their efforts to collect waste or those of the local or foreign companies contracted to collect the garbage. Other obstacles are related to the need for institutional, legislative or legal restructuring to make available effective tools for waste management.
Most experts on waste management agree that since the problem is large there is a need to divide it into smaller parts that can be dealt with separately to find innovative means to solve it in a satisfactory way that also restores people’s confidence in government.
Any new solution to waste management must abide by the practical implementation of sustainable development goals and look at waste from a different perspective, not as a problem but rather as a resource, they say.
The Ministry of Environment has prepared 27 action plans to manage waste in the country’s different governorates, taking into consideration the tools available to each, said Yasmine Fouad, the minister of environment. The schemes were approved by the governors concerned and will be implemented through technical support from the World Bank. 
Fouad explained that her ministry was responsible for planning, coordination with the ministries concerned, and providing technical support with the aim of getting rid of a garbage problem that has “grown in the past few years, particularly with suburban sprawl and overcrowding.”
Collecting and disposing of waste is “no easy task”, Fouad said, but things are now looking different. A year ago, the government had neither the data nor the plans to manage waste in the governorates, she added, but now this was no longer the case. 
The waste management system slated for implementation in Cairo includes offering institutional support, developing infrastructure, allocating sanitary landfills and building recycling factories. This is in addition to coming up with the necessary legal framework and mechanisms to encourage the private sector to invest in solid waste management, providing training to those needed, calling for social participation, and explaining people’s pivotal role in guaranteeing the sustainable management of solid waste in each governorate, Fouad added.
Problems related to waste include crumbling infrastructure that cannot cope with the daily production of waste. Fouad said feasibility studies had been conducted all over the country to remedy this. The problem, she stated, was not with the system of waste collection, but rather with garbage collectors who take what they need from garbage, making it more difficult for recycling factories to find what they want for their own industries. 
“To achieve sustainability, there has to be a system for garbage collection, transportation, and the closure of rubbish dumps,” Fouad said.
She stressed the need to involve all segments of society in the system. A dialogue with university students has been initiated to encourage young people to be involved in the scheme through a National Campaign to Improve the Sanitation System launched in coordination with governors and the ministries of local development, education, and others, and targeting all parts of the community.
Working groups have been formed and social media networks utilised in a joint effort between the Waste Management Regulation Authority (WMRA) and the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency to effectively activate the campaign.
Fouad said blueprints for new rubbish dumps, such as the Abu Kharita landfill, had been laid out in coordination with the Ministry of Local Development and other ministries, and that intermediary stations had been built and gardens landscaped in the place of landfills to ensure they do not once again turn into dumping grounds. 
As far as recycling plants are concerned, Fouad said that many of these were not functioning properly because the waste they require for their industries does not reach them. The ministry is looking into technological support from abroad.
“Civil society groups are contributing positively to garbage collection, but the real problem is that the governorates of Cairo, Giza and Alexandria still generate 42 per cent of Egypt’s total waste,” she added. 
Disposing of solid waste in Egypt
Disposing of solid waste in Egypt
Work has started on an intermediary garbage collection station in Qatawi in Shubra Al-Kheima in the Qalioubiya governorate to receive the waste generated in Cairo daily, increase the efficiency of waste collection and transportation, and remedy problems taking waste to the Abu Zaabal landfill, Fouad stated.
Some LE22 million was pumped into the budget of the Qalioubiya governorate for the establishment of the station and equipment, and in 2018 200,000 cubic metres of waste were treated.
Garbage collected in intermediary stations is transported to recycling lines, and they are particularly valuable when transporting waste less than 25km, Fouad said. Establishing such stations can be a quick fix to develop solid waste management, and plans include collecting and transporting solid waste from Shubra to the intermediary station in Qatawi and then on to the recycling plant in Khanka to produce organic fertilisers and refuse-derived fuel (RDF). The remaining refuse will then be transferred to the landfill in Obour City. 
The National Solid Waste Management Programme (NSWMP), affiliated to the Ministry of Environment, is currently carrying out projects in the governorates of Kafr Al-Sheikh, Gharbiya, Assiut and Qena before it goes national. “Investment in the application of the NSWMP in the four governorates took place in three phases: phase one (2016-2017) at an investment cost of about 2.5 million euros; phase two (2018-2019) at an investment cost of about 15.7 million euros; and phase three (2019-2020) at an investment cost of about 29 million euros,” said Hussein Abaza, an advisor to the minister of environment on waste management.
In cooperation with the ministries and bodies concerned, the Ministry of Environment has proposed plans for the development of waste management systems in the four governorates “in terms of the institutional framework and the assigning of roles and responsibilities between the WMRA, the governorates and the service providers, whether contributing companies, garbage collectors or civil organisations. The ministry’s outlook includes technical support, proposed infrastructure projects and financial aspects related to mechanisms determining the cost of the service and encouraging investment in waste,” Abaza said.
Hazem Tannan, the NSWMP manager, said that “following steps, in cooperation with the governors, will ensure the sustainability of operations and maintenance of equipment and facilities financed through the national programme.” The NSWMP, he explained, is a joint development programme between the Egyptian government, the European Union, the German government represented by the KfW Development Bank, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), a German development agency, and the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO).
A protocol of cooperation was also recently signed with the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation (AOI) to build seven intermediary waste stations at a cost of LE95 million. The protocol comes within the framework of the NSWMP as an urgent measure taken by the Ministry of Environment and other parties to help solve the waste problem.
The AOI is designing and supervising the construction of the stations in addition to buying the necessary equipment. There is a timeframe for completing the construction to ensure that all the waste collected will be transported to the stations and not thrown in dumps.
Disposing of solid waste in Egypt
Disposing of solid waste in Egypt
Over recent decades, attempts to attract international companies to use their technical and technological capabilities for waste disposal in Egypt have often failed, despite the fact that Egypt has embarked on many national projects to treat, dispose of, and bury solid waste. 
If implemented on a national scale, such projects could save millions of pounds and eliminate the problem of waste disposal in a safe fashion.
A project to treat and bury solid waste in 15 May city south of Cairo executed by the Egyptian Company for Solid Waste Recycling (ECARU) has been one successful project, however. Large quantities of garbage in line for recycling or to be taken to a landfill are being disposed of safely. In such cases, functioning systems can make or break any project. Advanced machinery decreases the need for manpower, so the project can keep up with other projects in the developed countries. Vehicles loaded with garbage empty this into machines that sort out the waste, which is then turned into organic fertilisers or solid fuel, while the rest is taken to a landfill.
Mahmoud Zaher, the project manager, said “a contract was signed in 2004 between the ECARU and the Cairo Cleaning and Beautification Authority for the treatment of waste in the southern zone, which comprises 13 districts and serves five million people. The services provided by the project include household garbage collection and a landfill.” The project now manages 2,500 tons of waste per day, employs 234 workers on three daily shifts, and takes up over 100 feddans: 35 feddans for the plants, and 65 feddans for the landfills.
Zaher added that “in the beginning the project employed large numbers of workers on operation and sorting lines because there were huge quantities of cartons, plastics and metals that could be used for recycling. Now, with the spread of collectors who sift through the garbage to take and sell household waste, it has become economically inefficient to employ that number of workers.” 
“Waste processing is now done in three phases: separating heavy materials that damage operating machines; food remains, or organic waste, are separated from solid waste to be used in the manufacture of organic fertilisers; and the refuse is used in the production of alternative fuels.”
After separating organic materials, the waste is bio-treated to produce organic fertilisers by stirring and watering the materials at a certain temperature to encourage them to decompose. They are then stirred for a further two months before they take the shape of fertilisers, Zaher added. 
Before 2011, all the refuse was taken to landfills because it was of no use to anyone. “But after the fuel shortages and the liberalisation of energy prices, companies and factories that are heavy energy consumers adopted alternative means to decrease their expenses. That was when the ECARU project allocated a portion of the solid refuse for the production of fuel,” he said. 
Zaher explained that “to manufacture such fuel the refuse is ground, air-separated, ground again, mixed and dried. Demand for alternative fuel is high among cement factories that consume energy heavily. They prefer to buy RDF instead of coal, which is more expensive. Moreover, alternative fuel is less damaging than coal to the environment, with its price ranging from LE500 to LE700 per ton depending on its heating value.”
Mohab Sherif, in charge of the ECARU’s sanitary landfills, said that refuse from the production of organic fertilisers and alternative fuel, in addition to building waste, was disposed of in sanitary landfills. “When the company took over the site in 2004, the landfill was not safe. Cells covering 90,000 metres square each were built and divided into sub-cells. Each cell receives waste on a daily basis, and each is covered when filled to prevent odours from leaking.”
Sherif added that “the cells are constructed according to international standards and are padded with materials that are determined according to their location and the type of soil. The padding prevents the accumulation of water resulting from organic refuse. Fluids and gas are sucked out through a mechanism that eliminates humidity to prevent soil pollution.”
“Each country measures its ability to recycle waste according to the amount of refuse dumped in sanitary landfills,” explained Sherif. “Germany, for example, recycles 85 per cent of its waste.”
Hisham Sherif, vice-chairman and CEO of ECARU, said it was vital to encourage the processes of recycling and the safe disposal of solid waste in Egypt. “In a ton of trash, half a ton may be composed of organic materials, which if buried with the refuse will cause major problems because they will produce humidity. The results are environmentally catastrophic.”
“The contract with the Cairo Cleaning and Beautification Authority obliges the company to recycle 20 per cent of the waste it receives, which means that 80 per cent of the buried waste, which includes organic substances, will cause environmental damage. But the ECARU seeks to preserve the environment and benefit from the refuse.”
Organic substances in waste ultimately come from the soil, whether food remains or starchy materials. “These are extremely useful as organic fertilisers after purification and treatment. In this project, 25 per cent of a ton of waste is turned into organic fertilisers. The problem, however, is that a ton of organic fertilisers is sold for LE100, which doesn’t cover the costs of its production. The project’s production of organic fertilisers is not for the sake of profits, but is rather a service,” Sherif said.
“The 15 May city project has been ongoing for 14 years, and another one in the Daqahliya governorate has been operational for six years. The company has given its experience in the field to eight countries, including Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Malaysia, Libya and Algeria. This year the company will open landfills in Ras Al-Khaimah and Sharjah in the UAE. If the project had not been successful in Egypt, it would not have been emulated abroad,” Sherif explained.
“Rumours are circulating that Egypt will imitate Germany’s model to recycle and dispose of waste. This is completely wrong. The ECARU uses the same machines that are used in Germany. Why not go national and international with our experience,” he asked.
At present, Sherif said, there were 400 dumping sites sprinkled randomly across Egypt, while waste is often also burned in the open air, causing environmental and health hazards. This gives an indication of the scale of the problem, he added.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Taking waste seriously
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