Egypt warned on plastic

Ghada Raafat , Thursday 3 Mar 2022

Egypt has scored low in a survey of 44 countries on the management of plastic waste.

Egypt warned on plastic
Egypt ranks low in effirts to manage plastic waste

Egypt is awash in plastic that finds its way into the River Nile, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea, with the country’s contribution to plastic waste in the Mediterranean amounting to 43 per cent of the total.

Some 2.8 million tons of plastic waste finds its way into the Mediterranean each year, according to a Back to Blue Report produced by Economist Impact in association with the Nippon Foundation.

Entitled “Coming to Grips with Plastic: Egypt’s Waste Management Challenge”, the report ranks 25 countries including Egypt on a Plastics Management Index (PMI) constructed out of 44 indicators relating to plastics management, systemic capacity, and stakeholder engagement.

Egypt ranked 22 overall on the PMI, with the report saying that when compared to other countries Egypt’s stakeholders had made a late start dealing with plastic waste. International organisations and environmental NGOs providing technical and financial assistance for plastic-management initiatives had yet to become deeply engaged in the country, it said.  

The PMI compares efforts made by the countries surveyed to manage the plastic life cycle. Their scores are based on their performance in three categories of indicators, governance, systemic capacity, and stakeholder engagement.

Egypt’s governance was weak, the report said, but it was improving. The regulation of single-use plastic bags has been addressed at the governorate level, but microplastic and the reporting of plastic footprints have received less attention.  

The report said that Egypt’s extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme provided for in the new waste-management law will be a step forward once implemented. The EPR stipulates that the producers of plastic items should cover the costs of collecting and recycling them.

According to the report, Egypt’s waste-collection processing and recycling operations lack efficiency and transparency. A large informal sector dominates the secondary market for post-consumer plastic, like in other developing countries, the report said. Inefficiencies in collecting and sorting contribute to leakage and weaken recycling, it said, with improvements in work practices and conditions needed to eradicate exploitation in the sector.

In the area of systemic capacity, Egypt has a more favourable position, ranking on the PMI at 15. Positive features include the regular collection of primary waste, though mixed waste that enables plastic flows to recyclers makes it difficult to produce high-quality recycled material, the report said.

Egypt’s traditional zabbaleen, or waste-collectors, recover and recycle 80 per cent of the materials they collect at high health costs, as they sort mixed waste manually, the report said.  However, this has helped to alleviate poverty over several decades. Recognising the system and formalising the sector could improve the situation, but the costs of formalisation could outweigh the benefits, the report added.  

The report quotes Laila Iskandar, co-founder of Cairo-based CID Consulting, as cautioning that “creating the right conditions for formalisation is complex.” Initiatives targeting formalisation should recognise the diversity of waste-collector circumstances within the sector, she added.

Formalisation would require invoices and receipts, which may cause the informal trading partners of small collectors to discontinue their work, Iskandar said. Her advice was to focus initially on improving the informal workers’ productivity and revenue-earning capacity so they are able to cover the costs that formalisation may bring.

On stakeholder engagement, the report calls for multi-stakeholder actions. Existing stakeholder initiatives are narrowly focused and small in scale, the report said, adding that international donor agencies, environmental NGOs, and global business alliances have limited involvement in the sector.

Egypt scored low on private-sector commitment to promoting responsible plastic use as well as responsible consumer actions and perceptions in the report.

The report addresses the challenges of managing plastic that Egypt faces and are commonly shared among other developing countries, such as charging consumers for collecting waste and a funding shortage.

According to the report, local government in Egypt faces difficulties in charging fees for household waste collection, as they are insufficient to cover the fixed and operational costs of municipalities. The implementation of the EPR, if made mandatory, could help to solve the problem, the report said.

Some efforts that have succeeded and that can be extended elsewhere include the Digitising the Zabbaleen mobile app that allows for bonuses to be paid to local waste-collectors on top of the price of the plastic they collect.   

Ninety per cent of Egypt’s zabbaleen went digital within 10 days of receiving the app and even preferred its digital wallet to cash, the report showed.

Other points of success include clean-up campaigns and awareness-building activities by some social enterprises that have also organised the manufacture of alternative-material bags, containers, and utensils.

Another project encourages local fishermen and communities to fish for plastic in return for money. Another incentivises the informal sector to collect PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles to make the Qurseya Island in Cairo 100 per cent sustainable in terms of plastic waste.  

Such idea could be easily replicated across Egypt, the report said.

A version of this article appears in print in the 3 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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