With rough hands tanned by the sun and wearing dirty clothes torn by effort and exhausting work, a group of waste scavengers sit sorting waste collected during the day.
Many women, children, and adolescents live by collecting and sorting waste in Cairo, with, according to the words of the head of the garbage collectors, about one million people working in the waste-management field in the capital along with a further three million in the rest of the governorates. Is collecting and sorting rubbish a profession of poverty and destitution, or could it be a trade that could make one rich that no one knows about?
At the same time that children and women in Africa, Asia, and the world’s poorer countries are working in garbage collection, businessmen in Europe and the developed countries have been trying to make money out of waste collection.
The problem of garbage and the non-responsible use of products has made waste a major problem that many countries are looking for a solution to. Europe earlier resorted to exporting much of its waste until it was discovered that its exploitation could mean large profits, making waste-disposal a feasible commercial process in much of Europe.
The garbage problem is one that can only be solved if individuals, the government, civil society and the private sector agree to work together. A solution can only be found with the cooperation of all the parties.
The problem of developing systems to manage solid waste is one facing both the developing and the developed countries. After the spread of cholera in Europe and North America in the 19th century, the importance of reaching a radical solution to the problem of waste, largely responsible for the spread of disease, was sought with the aim of protecting public health and preventing disease.
This has always been a major driver of public investment in waste infrastructure. Recently, however, dealing with waste has no longer been confined to the public sector, as there has been a tendency to make the maximum use of different types of waste in order to conserve resources and contribute to strengthening the economy.
The US today produces more than 220 million tons of waste annually, much more than any other country in the world. Because of this, government and environmental associations in the US have had to develop methods to deal with the problem. But the solution has turned out to be complex as it includes more than 20 different industries.
Waste management involved the collection, transportation, and disposal of waste, sewage, and other unwanted products. A waste-management system includes all the processes, procedures, and strategies used to dispose of waste, beginning with waste collection, separation, and treatment and going all the way to its final disposal, whether through recycling, composting, burning in landfills, or biological treatment and converting into energy.
Waste-management methods vary between recycling, composting, transportation to landfills, anaerobic digestion by bacteria, and mechanical heat treatment. Waste can be more effectively managed by people using recyclable products and products that can be reused with a view to waste reduction.
WASTE IN EGYPT
In the past, Egypt relied on traditional waste-collectors (scavengers) who collected garbage from residential units and some commercial establishments for a small amount fee and transported it to their communities for sorting.
Organic waste was used as food for pigs, and the rest was sold to composting factories, while solid waste was sold to factories or recycled in small workshops.
At the beginning of the new millennium, the government entrusted the responsibility of garbage collection and disposal to a number of foreign companies, putting garbage collection, street cleaning, and the sanitary burial of garbage in landfills into their hands. It did not, however, place much of an emphasis on recycling.
However, the new system largely failed because the majority of the private companies contracted to deal with the waste did not integrate the traditional garbage collectors into the new system, leading a number of them to resist the new methods.
But there is still a need for better waste management in Egypt, notably because of the increase in population and in the amount of waste produced. The idea today is to turn the burden of dealing with garbage into a source of national income, similar to what takes place in countries such as China and Switzerland that import, recycle, and transform waste for money according to the type and quality of the waste.
While the percentage of the total waste that can be used for recycling does not generally exceed 20 per cent and only 0.5 per cent of this is likely to be of high value, waste is no longer seen as useless.
According to data from the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) in 2017, solid waste in Egypt varies between agricultural waste, the largest percentage at 35 per cent, followed by waste from canals and drains at 28 per cent, and then municipal waste in third place.
Solid waste left over from normal daily activities may be of no value to those producing it in one location, but it may have value in another location or in other conditions that provide conditions conducive to reuse or recycling operations. This daily household waste represents 23.2 per cent of the total volume generated, followed by industrial, demolition, and construction waste at 13.8 per cent.
The problem of waste accumulation goes beyond the problem of the smell and the way it can spoil the look of the environment, since the waste can have serious environmental effects, including the leakage of fluids into different soil layers, which may affect the health of agricultural products or cause disease among animals.
Such waste, in addition to the carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, resulting from burning it, can give off emissions of methane, ammonia, and sulphur dioxide, all also contributing to the problem of global warming. It can contribute to the development of serious diseases such as cancer, liver and kidney failure, respiratory diseases and anaemia in neighbouring populations, as well as behavioural changes in children used to seeing ugliness and pollution.
More recently, new recycling plants have been built in Egypt and more modern cleaning equipment used in the streets of the country’s towns and cities, but there is still a gap between what we want to achieve and what has been achieved in the field of waste management. It is here that the role of investment and the non-governmental sector is crucial.
The recycling industry in Europe did not develop automatically, but rather was a direct result of adopting an appropriate mix of policies and legal regulations that contributed to creating appropriate incentives for recycling. Much the same thing needs to happen in Egypt.
For example, in Europe introducing policies to increase the cost of landfills for waste-disposal operators was important in making recycling more competitive. Taxes were imposed on burying waste, and the burying of untreated organic waste was banned, encouraging investment in recycling.
It should be noted that this was only possible after developing the infrastructure and considering the protection of public health a priority and then seeking to benefit from the economic value of the waste.
In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the government allocated investments worth LE133 billion to the electricity sector, but only LE4 billion to solid-waste management, including operating costs. The World Bank estimates that the cost of solid-waste management services in low-income countries, which includes collection, transportation, and completion of basic waste treatment, is at least $35 per ton.
In Egypt, around 24 million tons of municipal waste are generated annually, according to the Ministry of Environment, which means that national expenditure is less than $10 per ton, less than a third of what should be spent, according to the World Bank. This lack of investment has led to weak waste-management systems that do not protect public health and do not allow adequate value to be extracted from the waste.
As a result, the government and the various specialised agencies responsible have set out to conclude partnerships with civil-society institutions and private-sector companies to work on waste-management projects.
Law 202/2020 is concerned with waste management, aiming to eliminate the problem of waste in the streets and better organise waste management at the central and local levels. The environmentally safe management of waste of all kinds is targeted, attracting and encouraging investments in activities such as the collection, transportation, treatment, and disposal of waste.
The law sets up a Waste Management Regulatory Authority with the aim of regulating, following up, monitoring, evaluating and developing everything related to integrated waste management, as well as attracting and encouraging investments in the field to ensure sustainable development. This will be done through cooperation among state institutions, local administrations, the private sector, civil-society organisations and international organisations in Egypt.
The public business sector, the private sector, and civil-society organisations licensed by the authority will provide integrated waste-management services and develop and implement the work plans necessary to provide such services in accordance with the terms of contracts and statutory controls.
At the end of 2022, the Ministry of Environment reviewed a report on creating a supportive climate for the implementation of the new system by encouraging the private sector to invest in the field with a view to converting waste into energy through technical support and a package of incentives.
At the same time, at the governorate level measures proposed by the authority were included in the protocol signed between the ministries of the environment, local development, and planning and administrative reform and the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation and the National Military Production Authority to implement projects for waste management in four stages from 2019 to 2023.
The minister of environment said that 4,200 individuals nationwide had registered on the relevant website to recruit workers in the field of waste recycling as part of efforts to integrate the informal sector into the field of waste management.
A programme was implemented to support private-sector companies and the informal sector with a view to integrating them into the new system for the collection and transportation of waste and street-cleaning services. Ten companies have been given technical support for qualifying small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) to work in the new system.
Nabil Mahrous is the head of the Plant a Tree Foundation for Development, a civil-society organisation working in the field of the environment and with ideas on waste management.
Mahrous runs an integrated Environmental Awareness Centre that presents models for the safe disposal of waste, from recycling to making compost from organic waste. His NGO contributes to helping to raise awareness of the importance of recycling, especially among children and young people. He provides training and visits to the NGO’s Environmental Awareness Centre for schoolchildren, with the aim of promoting a love of nature. He also provides training for women on recycling projects.
In November last year, Egypt organised the UN COP27 Climate Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, and new types of super-powerful cleaning equipment were used to clean the city for the event before it opened its doors to the tens of thousands of delegates working in the fields of the environment and the climate around the world who flocked to the venue for the conference.
A fleet of vacuum cleaners cleaned the streets of Sharm El-Sheikh, with dozens of volunteers introducing the technology to the city. This technology helps to preserve the streets as well as clean them, and it saves workers from having to engage in manual work.
The technology is imported by the Innovativa company, whose CEO and founder, Mohamed Abdel-Badie, said that over the past two years it has specialised in importing new cleaning equipment into Egypt. Its sweeper cars will soon be operating in other cities beside Sharm El-Sheikh.
Abdel-Badie said that last September the company had carried out a cleaning campaign on the Nile. Hundreds of volunteers had participated in the campaign, and it had been a great success, he said.
The Cairo governorate is also using equipment provided by the company for street cleaning, with workers being fully trained to deal with it. Innovativa also provides environmental solutions in more than 13 other countries around the world.
*The writer is an environmental and climate change expert who works with local and international bodies and has represented Egypt at conferences on the environment and climate abroad.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.