Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Talking “rubbish” with Egypt’s environment minister

laila iskandarSitting down with Minister of Environment Laila Iskandar at Alexandria’s ongoing Biovision conference, she talked to Nature Middle East about going back to the basics in terms of solid waste sorting and recycling–a thing that was overdue, according to her.

“We have tried everything else, and all has failed,” she says. Before becoming minister, Iskandar was consultant to the ministry on waste management issues in Egypt, and changing the current disposal system was what she’d been lobbying for ever since the government contracted Spanish, Italian and French waste management companies for rubbish disposal.

With Egypt’s tight budget, and rampant poverty, one would think that investing in an already-integrated community that does what big waste companies are doing, with lesser costs, instead of outsourcing the operation, is a no-brainer. However, in the minister’s words, the country chose to pool money into a “modern” management system that was practically set for failure, instead of re-organizing the work of informal garbage collectors–casually known as the “zabaleen”–who are already doing this without an extra fee from the government.

But she’s out to change that. Coordinating with municipalities, she’s bringing the “zabaleen,” whose number ranges from 80,000 to 150,000, under the jurisdiction of the ministry–giving them salaries, uniforms and all. The modern companies only moved the garbage from garbage collecting points to disposal facilities, she says, but “the ‘zabaleen’ have an invested interest in the materials because they want to recycle it.”

The informal garbage collectors usually haul the piles of refuse on donkey-pulled carts across Cairo to the seedbed of their operations, where they live and work, in Manshiyet Nasser, a squalid densely-populated settlement tucked away in Moqattam–at once experiencing the worst that the city has to offer (in terms of infrastructure) and creating a model for what an active strata of the urban poor can still contribute to the community despite living hand-to-mouth.

Like clockwork, the garbage is sorted by hand, and 80% of the organic waste gathered is reused or recycled, keeping the community’s carbon footprint to a minimum, before “sustainability” came into fashion.

“The [foreign] companies didn’t do a good job and they weren’t regular. They weren’t experts in managing so they fell apart,” she explains, labeling the contracts with multinationals, “a big disaster.” Giza has “disentangled itself” from these contracts, but Cairo is still caught up in their throes, she says.

Of course, it’s difficult–and extremely costly–to sever delicately-crafted multimillion-dollar contracts with international companies; they’re currently in arbitration. For now, Iskandar says that they’re re-introducing the work of the “zabaleen” on a limited scale, to areas not heavily covered by the companies. And let’s face it, for the “zabaleen” or rogue garbage collectors, it was business as usual, only now they’re happy to have garnered recognition by the government for a job they inherited from their fathers, and their forefathers, and had been doing for decades. Especially that until last year, it was illegal to employ garbage collectors.

Iskandar herself seems both sympathetic to their cause and impressed by the efficiency of their recycling operation. In her speech to the delegates of the conference, she described the collectors as the “honest poor,” pointing out to the audience that they’d been facing one blow after another; first the introduction of foreign companies that threatened to throw them out of business and forced them to be clandestine about it, and second, the 2009 culling of their swine population amidst the “pig influenza panic” that Egypt had experienced with the emergence of some H1N1 virus infections.

The utilization of this vast workforce, while working to better their living conditions, is a win for the ministry. But the over-powered institution still faces difficulties in other areas, especially that its environmental protection guidelines are more “advisory” than compulsory, with very few enforceable laws and a low-stake penalty code for violators. “How bad is the situation?” we asked, referring generally to conservation efforts, industrial pollution issues to name a few of the problems facing the ministry. “Pretty bad,” Iskandar shot back. “But I’m hopeful that things can get better,” she added as an afterthought.


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    Abdel Nasser Tawfik said:

    Such “relatively” simple problems turn to get complicated and accordingly only invented solutions would work.