CAIRO - 19 April 2017: “The bag of trash is how we get by; we eat and drink from its takings. We suffice ourselves with it and we do not ask for anything.”
Meet El Nokrashi Sedki, one of a million garbage collectors, known as zabaleen, in Cairo, whose livelihoods depend solely on the lifecycle of a trash bag.
Sedki starts his day around 2 or 3 a.m., knocking on people’s doors and loading trash bags onto one of thousands garbage trucks. By 10 a.m., the trucks head back to “Garbage City” and the industrial phase begins. The tons of trash are then sorted by the zabaleen’s families and distributed among dozens of high-functioning workshops, to come out as valuable recycled products.
“If they want to take away my bag of trash, they shall sustain me and my seven kids, from clothing to food to schools. I meet all of these needs from the trash bag and I do not ask the government for zilch,” Sedki told Egypt Today, worried and fearful of a new governmental project that he says threatens the sustenance of his whole community.
“Sell your garbage,” a project launched by Cairo Governorate in early March, aims to establish kiosks in different neighborhoods where people are encouraged to sell their cans, plastic bottles, paper and cardboard instead of throwing them away. It has started with two kiosks in Heliopolis district in Cairo. Other kiosks are being prepared in other locations in the governorate.
Figures: Creative Commons via Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons/Compiled and designed by Egypt Today
One story, two sides
The initiative has raised a great deal of controversy and uncertainty. The garbage collectors, who have adopted this inherited career for over 70 years, say it is encroaching on their livelihood, while the government and the pioneers of the idea are insisting it is profitable socially, financially and environmentally and will not harm anyone.
Shehata El Mekades, head of the Garbage Collectors Syndicate, told Egypt Today that the new project will “cut off the Zabaleen’s only source of income,” affirming there are three million garbage collectors in Egypt who “depend completely on selling and recycling solid waste” and do not receive salaries, pensions or medical insurance from the government.
“Where is the role of the Zabal who has been working from 1948 until today? … You are not leaving me any vacuity to work,” the syndicate head said, addressing the government while surrounded by members of his community who had gathered at his home to find a solution.
Mekades’s villa, also the headquarters of the syndicate, is located in Garbage City, under the cliffs of the Moqattam quarries in southeastern Cairo. Over 700,000 zabal have settled there since 1980, creating the largest zabaleen community in Egypt.
Today, the members of this growing community are furious and “burning from the inside,” as Hermina Sadek, the hotels agent at Garbage City in charge of dealing with hotel waste, told Egypt Today. “The day we will go out to demand our rights, all of the streets will be blocked,” he said.
Sadek, 77, has been involved in this field for over 60 years. “I used to carry the garbage sack on my back, knock on every door and carry it all the way down [the stairs of each building] while cleaning up the staircase,” he recalled.
According to Mekades, the garbage collectors were not consulted or alerted before the start of the project; and even though they were vaguely invited to participate, it would barely be an opportunity for a handful of the community members. The hundreds and thousands left out, he said, would become “homeless.”
Garbage City - Photo by Yasmine Hassan
Garbage City dwellers and the zabaleen community are also worried about the project’s threat to the recycling industry within the city.
Romani Badir, secretary of the Association of Garbage Collectors Community Development, told Egypt Today, “The Moqattam Garbage City alone handles 5,000 tons of garbage per day, 90 percent of which is recycled in workshops within the city itself and reintegrated into the economy through factories and enterprises.”
All 70,000 residents participate in the process, according to Badir. “We sort and recycle all raw materials, we study and develop our knowledge and we build up new generations,” he said, adding that they are currently cooperating with over 7,000 factories in Egypt and even export to China.
The informal sector recovers 2,567,143 tons of waste annually and recycles over 80 percent of what it collects, making annual sales of up to 197.5 million Egyptian pounds. The formal sector, on the other hand, recovers 810,667 tons and recycles only 45 percent of the collected waste, according to a 2007 study by GTZ (German Technical Cooperation) and CWG (Collaborative Working Group on Solid Waste Management in Low and Middle Income Countries).
“This whole industry will be completely halted due to the new project, and the factories depending on it will stop,” Badir said in response to the governorate’s initiative.
Cookware recycling workshop in Garbage City - Photo by Yasmeen Shaheen
On the other side of the spectrum, Hafez el-Said, chairman of the General Authority for Cleanliness and Beauty in Cairo Governorate, told Egypt Today that the project has not touched the livelihood of the zabaleen.
“They are there doing their work as usual and we have not turned our back on anyone … It is a big system and we want people to join us,” Said said, adding that they invited the zabaleen to participate in the new system either by starting a new kiosk in a certain neighborhood or dealing with the existing ones.
Parliamentarian Dr. Shereen Farrag, pioneer of the “Sell your Garbage” idea, also told Egypt Today that the project will not have any negative effects on the destitute garbage collectors but rather will protect their rights, which “are currently being abused by the boss-men in the garbage industry.”
“The zabaleen are actually the ones who will be dealing the most with the kiosks, at an even higher price than they used to [making] by themselves,” Farrag said, stressing that “no one has been harmed by the initiative so far” and that the problem was only created by “the boss-men who do not want the people or the zabaleen to know the real value of their garbage.”
The parliamentarian further listed five main advantages that should result from her idea:
1- Creating an immediate motive for Egyptians to understand the value of trash, based on the premise that citizens must receive a prompt incentive in order to be motivated for anything;
2- Creating small-sized projects and providing job opportunities, while producing economic benefit for the country;
3- Integrating those newly employed in the structure of the government, so that they can become good citizens and pay their taxes, instead of working outside the system;
4- Eradicating the phenomenon of garbage scavengers;
5- Providing enough material for the recycling factories that are currently demanding to “import garbage” to satisfy their needs.
A meeting had been scheduled at the headquarters of the garbage collectors syndicate amid the announcement of the project, gathering a number of parliamentarians who oppose the project and high-ranking members in the zabaleen community to discuss possible solutions. The meeting, however, was cancelled “for security reasons,” Mekades told Egypt Today.
Garbage City in Muqattam, Cairo - Egypt Today
Follow the money!
In addition to the tense disagreement between the government and the zabaleen, the project has raised suspicions concerning the money flow, the project’s beneficiaries and its actual environmental efficiency.
“Where does the profit of the solid waste go? Does it go into Tahya Masr Fund or the government’s treasury or into the pockets of greedy people who want to take away the bread of the poor zabal?” Mekadis asked the government, estimating the daily profit of each kiosk to be over EGP 9,000.
Professor Salah el-Haggar, chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department at The American University in Cairo and Vice President of A.P.E. (an NGO operating inside the Garbage City), also told Egypt Today the project is “mainly an investment” and not so much about the garbage. “The project is only targeting solid waste, [which totals] 20 percent of the garbage … because the price of cans, plastic, etc almost tripled since the floatation” of the Egyptian pound in November, Haggar explained, wondering about the remaining 80 percent of the waste.
When asked to clarify the money flow and the beneficiaries of the project, Said said, “The funding comes from the entity that establishes the kiosk, such as national organizations, businessmen or even youth who want to start a new project.”
He asserted that the governorate does not fund anything and that the financial profit goes to whomever invested in the kiosk, which costs EGP 50,000-60,000, and to pay salaries.
Can the project actually resolve the dilemma of 18,000 tons of daily waste in greater Cairo?
It is not the first time the government has introduced such an initiative. In 2014, the Ministry of Environment started a similar project, under the name “Sorting at the source.” The main idea was to encourage people to divide their trash into two bags at home: organic and solid waste. The initiative was sponsored by the prime minister and depended upon various partnerships with national companies in charge of collecting garbage, cleaning companies in each neighborhood, civil society groups to monitor the process and provide training and awareness sessions and the garbage collectors themselves.
Two years earlier, in 2012, then-President Mohamed Morsi launched the “Clean Homeland” initiative, a volunteer-based campaign that called on Egyptians to participate in cleaning their own neighborhoods. It allegedly succeeded in removing 120,000 tons of garbage in 22 governorates. Earlier, the government had even resorted to foreign help in the early 2000s; it signed contracts with Spanish and Italian companies to clean up Cairo in return for millions of dollars.
Yet, after a glance at Cairo’s sidewalks or the areas around the Ring Road it appears as if none of these attempts were visibly successful in the long run.
What could make this new project, or any others, stand out from earlier attempts?
Haggar, who has been active in the field of waste management for over 30 years, believes the only way the recent initiative can be successful is by buying all of the garbage and not only the solid waste. He clarified that the current system will encourage trash bins scavengers by creating a quick market for solid waste, and the rest will be left scattered around bins everywhere.
Haggar further clarified some basic principles to resolve the garbage problem in Egypt, starting with educating the stakeholders and the government about their responsibilities.
The key stakeholders in waste management include both the formal sector (the central government, local government, ministries, formal small private companies, national and international donors, commercial waste generators and residents and non-governmental organization (NGOs)) and the informal sector (traditional garbage collectors (zabaleen), roamers (sarriiha), middlemen and intermediary buyers/dealers and wholesale merchants of items from roamers).
“The management process of waste in Egypt is random,” Haggar said, explaining that the government does not have the tools to direct the situation or set responsibilities. “The government must have the upper hand in terms of regulations and inspection … The role of the government is not to just to collect fees.”
He also affirmed the necessity to treat the garbage problem “holistically,” starting with the collection phase, the location and capacity of the garbage bins and essential hygiene education. “Garbage is an essential and primary issue and a service that must be provided by the government, or else the latter has to be held accountable,” Haggar concluded.
Cardboard recycling - Photo by Yasmeen Shaheen
Back to “Sell your garbage”
The situation surrounding the new Sell Your Garbage initiative is still intense and will remain so until the two sides reach some sort of compromise. Even though the project’s executives are defending their initiative as a win-win situation for everyone, the Zabaleen believe they are headed toward a crisis and insist “they will not be satisfied until the government stops the new project,” their syndicate head said on their behalf.
“We are not making enemies of the government but we are defending our livelihood,” Mekades stated.
Whether or not this new project will be uniquely successful, or will even make it to the next phase, is still difficult to determine. But at the very least, the battle over garbage reminds citizens how valuable their bag of trash actually is, both as an indispensible source of livelihood for millions of the population and as a financial asset that, if handled correctly, could be one factor to help Egypt out of its tough economic situation.