We know the basics of sustainability; to use natural resources in ways that ensure they are still available for future generations. But despite the best intentions we are often not sure how to put the concept of sustainable living to practice.
Ambassador to the International Future Living Institute and the Well Faculty Amira Ayoub is one of the few people in Egypt who are experts in sustainable buildings and living. The architect explains that sustainability involves three main aspects that can be applied to almost everything around us: from how we design or build our homes to what we eat, how we drive our cars and how we invest in anything. There are three pillars of sustainability, the planet being the first. Living a sustainable life is about making sure we are not harming the environment or consuming energy from nonrenewable resources; in a bigger sense, being earth friendly.
The second pillar is profit. Many people think that profit is about buying a product that is affordable, which is true, but a sustainable product should also save money and guarantee that we are not wasting it on something unworthy.
People are the third pillar of sustainability and this entails paying attention to the physical and mental health of those around us; which means not buying products that are marketed as “diet” or “healthy” just because the label says so.
These three pillars can pretty much apply to anything we are purchasing, be it a washing machine, a new car, a house or a microwave. “If I am buying a new car, for instance, the first questions I should ask myself are these: Will it harm the environment? Is it better to buy an electric vehicle instead of a gas-powered one? Similarly, if I am buying a plastic chair, I should ask whether any of its parts are recycled,” says Ayoub.
Although people tend to focus on one of the three pillars more so than the other two, Ayoub argues that for people to get the best out of sustainable living, they need to apply the three pillars as much as they can.
She adds that people should not fall into the trap of false sustainability, explaining that we should differentiate between a real healthy lifestyle and greenwashing. She defines the latter as delivering a false image of being environmentally friendly, healthy or green and spending a lot of money to promote the idea without really doing much for the environment. Because of the spread of greenwashing, the first step for people seeking a sustainable lifestyle is research. “I do not have to be an expert to live in a sustainable home, that is why research is very important because, unfortunately, greenwashing is found everywhere, not just in architecture,” Ayoub stresses.
People must be aware of basic sustainability standards when buying a house and ask if a neutral party has certified this building or house as a sustainable one. There are international bodies like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which assesses how green a building is through assessing whether it uses recycled material, the indoor air quality, whether it employs water-saving faucets and the sources of energy used to power it. In an effort to provide a similar neutral body in the region, Ayoub, who is recognized by LEED as a sustainability expert, has founded the first collaborative of the Living Building Challenge in the region, the Cairo Collaborative. The Living Building Challenge is an international sustainable building certification program created in 2006. According to Ayoub, today, Egypt has around 12 or 13 certified green buildings.
Ayoub reveals that the damage done by non-sustainable architecture is more than anyone expects, something she is fighting to raise awareness about in the region. “The contribution of architecture and buildings in global warming and climate change is actually 40 percent, which is more than other sources of pollution such as transportation and factories,” she says.
Air quality is one of the items on the sustainability checklist and there are two kinds of ventilation; natural and mechanical ventilation through air conditioning. Ventilation usually depends on the location of the building, Ayoub explains, so if your house is close to the Sixth of October Bridge, natural ventilation wouldn’t be a good option as a window would be a big source of pollution, as opposed to natural air. But it isn’t as simple as cracking a window open to air out a place and rid it of accumulating bacteria from people’s breath; the materials used inside our homes also play a significant role in our health and green lifestyle. “It is sad to say that most furniture items, paints and adhesives present in Egyptian homes emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), Ayoub explains. “Unfortunately, even if I am sticking to a strict cleaning system involving good ventilation, VOCs will not go away.” VOCs, Ayoub adds, are harmful to human beings, can cause headaches and are the leading cause of cancer. They especially affect babies and young children who are often playing on the floor and mats. This is why it is important to know which places sell environment-friendly, low or zero VOC items. “The easiest one to start with is paint; many shops in Egypt sell low VOCs paints,” Ayoub adds.
Ayoub stresses that awareness is the first key to living a sustainable lifestyle. “If people become more aware of the concept of sustainability and green homes, a market shift will occur and there will be more demand for real green products,” she adds.
Studies show that most people are under the impression that green buildings are more expensive than traditional ones but the truth is, “if we are thinking long term and what is best for our future benefit or the ROI (return on investment), we will see it differently,” Ayoub argues. “For example, the LED lamps usually cost around LE 120 but they live up to four and a half years, so if we made our calculations we will find that they save up to 40 percent, compared to normal lamps.” She adds that the same concept applies to green homes; you might pay more now but will reap the cost benefits in the future.
Pioneering sustainable living
As one of the leading companies in sustainability, IKEA applies the concept of sustainability in its own stores in Cairo and worldwide by reducing the consumption of energy through using water-saving faucets and electricity-saving modes. “We are also hoping to start using solar panels soon [in Cairo’s store] and that more people can benefit from Egypt’s great sun,” says IKEA Family Manager Doaa Hashem.
Hashem adds that, in line with their global policies, IKEA Egypt started recycling different types of waste last year, including restaurant’s leftovers and the store’s wastes. To raise awareness about the concept, the home furnishing and accessories giant presented the idea to their different suppliers. “The company started addressing different factories and presenting them with simple steps to save energy; such as using recycled material and designing boxes that will fill 100 percent of the supplying cars, making sure no space is wasted unused and then directly delivering the products to the store,” says Hashem. “This resulted in cutting costs and presenting people with affordable environment-friendly products.”
Hashem explains that there are two kinds of products; ones that help live a more sustainable life at home and others that are sustainable themselves. The sustainable products contain either recycled materials or materials coming out of renewable resources or that have been certified as environment-friendly. A wide range of sustainable products can be found at IKEA, such as food containers that help reduce food wastes, water taps equipped with sensors to minimize water consumption and a wide range of LED, energy-saving bulbs, according to Hashem.
Simple steps to sustainability and saving energy
•Switch to LED lamps
•Close room door when the AC is on
•Use dryers only when needed
•Use pots to boil water instead of electric boilers
•Buy water-saving faucets or low-flushing taps
•Look for home items and materials with low VOCs, especially paints
Health and Wellness
•Avoid processed food
•Drink plenty of water
•Try as much as possible to plant and bake your own food.
The dynamics of recycling
Recycling helps more than just the environment and in the long run can contribute to the economy. For businesses, buying near-perfect, recycled material is more cost-friendly than buying refined material. But as Ayoub explained earlier, the short-term cost is high, meaning that for the time being at least, recycled products are actually more expensive.
“The challenge in Egypt is not the stores that sell recycled products . . . the challenge is not even in the factories, the challenge is the collection; the supply chain,” says Mostafa Hemdan, CEO of RecycloBekia, a local e-waste recycling company.
The supply chain is controlled by the informal sector which makes it harder for recycling companies to find waste products, map the market, and practice business ethics in matters that concern taxes and such because the competition with the informal sector is very high.
Hemdan explains that the process of sorting out the trash to “plastic,” “glass” and “metal/can” is extremely time consuming and costly. Second, the cleaning waste requires a lot of time and energy to return it to a reusable state which again requires a lot of money. Therefore, although the costs of using recycled material decreases the price, the production of recycled material increases the price.
But with factories operating locally, the costs of recycling have decreased because the shipping costs are much lower, and with the introduction of the three compartment recycling bins, the sorting costs are significantly lower. The decrease in costs means that recycled products are not as expensive as they once were. And though recent price hikes have seen shipping, raw material and production costs increase, prices of recycled products would have been more expensive if they had not been made of recycled material. On the macro level, then, recycling is economic for both the consumer and businesses.
While commercial recycling might come at a high price, recycling around the home is easy to turn into a sustainable living habit. How many times have you turned your old shirt into a kitchen cloth, for example?
More and more people are pursuing a sustainable lifestyle and there are a growing number of venues in Egypt catering to the demand for recycled materials. Most bookstores have books and notebooks made from recycled paper. Several food outlets and coffee shops like Costa Coffee use recycled plastic and cardboard for their take away plates and cups.
Gezazy recycles glass bottles into lamps, candle holders, fish tanks, vases and other glass work. Originally focusing on glass waste, Gezazy recently expanded their scope to wood recycling. Their wood work includes tables, chairs, doors, and much more.
Like Gezazy, Reform Studio is a store that recycles plastic into handbags. Working with a type of reused plastic material called Plastex, Reform recently expanded their product line to chairs, benches, stools placemats and storage bags. et
—Additional reporting by Nour Eltigani