According to the most recent statistics compiled by the Egyptian Environment Agency and published in 2009, Cairo produces up to 14,000 tons of municipal waste per day. About 60 percent of this waste — or 8,000 tons– is collected, managed and disposed of by the zabaleen, a good portion of the whom are based in Manshiyet Nasser, on the Moqattam slopes.
Zabaleen are self-employed garbage men who collect garbage from urban areas, take it back to their place of residence, sort it out, and then personally sell, recycle, or dispose of it. In the process, the majority of Cairene trash piles up in the zabaleen’s neighborhoods until it can be handpicked and disposed of — meaning they have their thumbs on the pulse of the city’s waste management problems.
So it was of major irritation to members of the Spirit of Youth — an NGO formed by Manshiyet Nasser residents and garbage collectors several years ago to represent the zabaleen and ensure the maintenance of their residences — when Morsy’s “Clean Homeland” campaign coordinators ditched their meetings and ignored their calls for discussions and ideas on how to address the city’s severe waste problems.
“[The campaign] is political propaganda,” says Ezzat Naiem, director of the Spirit of Youth. “They don’t really want to fix Egypt’s waste problems, or discuss how to dispose of the mountains of waste that ends up in zabaleen villages, they want pictures of young Egyptians with brooms for the campaign.”
Weeks ago, president Morsy pledged to fix the country’s garbage problems within 100 days, after which young Egyptians could be seen cleaning the streets for several days.
But despite the streets of Cairo being considerably dirty and in need of a good broom, the main problems are actually with the city’s waste management infrastructures and disposal facilities.
Aside from the 8,000 tons of trash collected by the Zabaleen, the remaining 6,000 tons is supposed to be disposed of by multinational firms that were hired a decade ago.
But over the past couple of years, escalating reports show that garbage trucks have been dumping garbage all around the Cairo ring road, in the desert (often around archaeological sites), and in rural irrigation canals.
Last week Egypt Independent reported on the irrigation canals of Abu Sir, which were shown to be completely blocked and polluted, creating health concerns and damaging agriculture.
Additionally, since the slaughter of Egypt’s pigs in 2009 (due to the swine flu craze), the zabaleen no longer want to collect organic waste because it can no longer be fed to their pigs. Now, they rummage through their collections before returning home, resulting in small piles of garbage scattered all over Cairo’s streets.
Many other severe but smaller scale problems also exist, such as the continuous disposal of hazardous waste into normal waste bins.
“This is the reality of Cairo’s waste problems, and we have the plan and the workforce to fix it,” adds Naiem.
The Spirit of Youth, founded in 2004, was originally setup to represent the zabaleen. However, they have since established a syndicate for Workers in Cleaning, Beautification and Protection of the Environment, and have formally registered 38 companies consisting of groups of zabaleen individuals — meaning they can be hired and required to pay taxes.
Also, according to Naiem, there are currently about 150,000 zabaleen workers that are active and willing to clean Egypt.
So, campaign silence aside, what’s stopping them?
Currently Egypt’s zabaleen are self-funded, and make the majority of their money from recycling goods, or private collection arrangements with specific buildings throughout Cairo.
Naiem’s proposition to the Morsy campaign is to divide up polluted areas into districts and allocate the zabaleen accordingly. Each family of each building could then be required to pay LE5 per month to have the garbage picked up personally from outside their apartment, which translates into serious funds for the Zabaleen.
“With that sort of money, the Zabaleen could personally separate the garbage, recycle what they can, and then send the organic waste to compost sites and the remaining waste to the appropriate facilities — which they do already, but lack finances and motivation to tackle the problem properly,” he says.
Naiem also believes that Egypt should cancel the contracts of the multinational companies, which cost millions of pounds, and reinvest that money into developing further waste disposal facilities.
“Multinational companies can’t function without proper law enforcement and infrastructure, which there isn’t now and will take a very long time to establish,” says Naiem. “Once we have a proper system in place run by the zabaleen that is feasible and works, then we can begin discussions on developing and improving the macro infrastructure.”
But so far, no practical, long-term plans have been provided by the “clean homeland” campaign as of yet.
In a statement to Egypt Independent following the campaign’s initial days, Ali Shelby, a campaign supervisor, said that they planned to follow the Turkish model for waste management, and fix the mixed system created by the old regime that combined the Zabaleen with multinational waste management companies.
But Naiem maintains that Egypt doesn’t have the money or the same issues that Turkey did, and that meetings with the Morsy campaign have been ditched, and follow up calls ignored. “If they were serious, they would at least sit down for discussions and listen to what we have to offer,” he adds.
Waleed El Senussi, a chief coordinator of the campaign, with who the zabaleen were initially in contact with, declined to comment.