Environmental Voices: Small is beautiful for Egypt’s solid waste management

The following article is part of Al-Masry Al Youm's weekly "Environmental Voices" series, in which issues related to the environment–whether local, regional or international in nature–will be discussed from the point of view of environmental experts.

Cairo's experience with large centralized waste systems–whether governmental or multinational–has categorically failed. Experience shows the following aspects would probably lead to successful systems for large cities as well as small towns: A system based on SMALL to MEDIUM entities which operate locally and which are licensed officially by the government to provide the service; a system that provides unemployed youths with jobs and increased sustainable economic opportunities; a system that enables youths to utilize new and appropriate technology that is inexpensive, easy to maintain, and financed by local banks and/or the Social Fund for Development; ongoing technical assistance and business support; monitoring on a small, community-based basis; and a system that upgrades health and safety standards by requiring protective gear, sanitary handling methods, and numerous other health-related measures.

Waste problems can have a array of solutions; there is no blueprint that can be applied to every context. A solution appropriate to Egypt needs to take into consideration domestic issues such as high unemployment among youths, persistently high poverty levels, low levels of literacy and high drop-out rates among school students, low technical skills levels in the labor pool, high imports of materials for the recycling industry, high degree of failure of centralized waste systems, poor ability and willingness to pay for waste services by residents, little technical know-how in managing complex waste equipment, poor ability to monitor international operators and international contracts, and low level of accountability and professionalism among official staff charged with waste management in municipalities.

The current waste system in Cairo is designed in a piecemeal manner failing to produce a coherent, functional whole. A value chain approach to waste management focusing on composting and recycling can preserve scarce resources and reduce green house gases. People are still not ready to pay high fees for service. Experience with multinational companies for garbage collection in Cairo and Alexandria have not been successful.  Keeping service provider entities small and labor intensive as well as closer to the waste generation source reduces cost of system and reduces burden of fees on residents. It also reduces the entire system's carbon footprint.

Further challenges associated with this sector are systemic, institutional, and individual. The administrative structure in charge of waste management is complex, fragmented and dispersed in numerous government agencies. Government staff members in charge of solid waste management are under qualified. Setting fee-for-waste services has not been based on sound financial models and education of the population is not compatible with any system which places waste in the public domain. Government investments in composting plans have proved to be financially not viable, as mixed waste does not lead to the production of marketable compost and raises operational costs of composting plants. Waste source segregation would make composting plans more financially feasible. There is a market for quality compost from the organic fraction of waste.

The formal Recycling Industry is not accessing valuable resources available in waste streams and, thus, operations require costly imports. Current waste systems are designed to 'eliminate the waste' rather than 'recover the materials.’ A major paradigm shift has to occur in order to capture industry inputs from the materials emanating from municipal sources generating the waste, rather than seek to 'bury' in landfills or incinerate. Formal industries need to connect with traditional collectors and recycling small and medium enterprise (SME's) in well-designed partnership models. The waste of the city is the feedstock of industry. The current vehicle for this resource reaching industry is the informal sector. They need to be formalized, upgraded and drawn into new, formal structures to keep the materials flowing to the industry and reduce Egypt's reliance on costly, unnecessary imports, as well as reduce green house gases.

Studies and surveys provide evidence on the informal recycling sector’s ability to generate employment in a manner that has yet been unmatched by any other sector–seven jobs for every ton of materials discarded–and thus provides a tremendous opportunity for employment generation, particularly for the unskilled and semi-skilled, and especially for the illiterate. Investments in that recycling sector in the SME’s economy have surpassed US$50 million and constitute a growing dynamic economic growth sector. South-South cooperation between Egypt and countries in Africa have been thriving  with Cairo acting as the incubator of recycling groups that have begun mushrooming all over sub-Saharan Africa.

Public health needs to be protected by instituting door-to-door collection until formal schooling and public education campaign bring forth results which change people's behavior and allow system to change to waste pooling site collection. Additionally, poverty levels of urban populations are high. They disrupt current system by having scavengers search for resources and livelihoods in containers on streets. Waste needs to be kept out of the public domain until poverty alleviation schemes for scavengers eliminate the need to protect the waste in the public domain from them. The perception that scavengers and traditional collectors are a threat to the system needs to be changed. They constitute the urban poor and need to be central to the design of systems which address public health as well as poverty alleviation and resource recovery.

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