Garbage Woes in Cairo

Cairo, being one of the largest cities in the world, is home to more than 15 million inhabitants. Like other mega-cities, solid waste management is a huge challenge for Cairo municipality and other stakeholders.  The city produces more than 15,000 tons of solid waste every day which is putting tremendous strain on city’s infrastructure. Waste collection services in Cairo are provided by formal as well as informal sectors. While local authorities, such as the Cairo Cleanliness and Beautification Authority (CCBA), form the formal public sector, the informal public sector is comprised of traditional garbage-collectors (the Zabbaleen).

Around 60 percent of the solid waste is managed by formal as well as informal waste collection, disposal or recycling operations while the rest is thrown on city streets or at illegal dumpsites. The present waste management is causing serious ecological and public health problems in Cairo and adjoining areas. Infact, disposal of solid waste in water bodies has lead to contamination of water supplies is several parts of the city. Waste collection in Cairo is subcontracted to ‘zabbaleen’, local private companies, multinational companies or NGOs. The average collection rate ranges from 0 percent in slums to 90% in affluent residential areas.

The Zabbaleen of Cairo

The Zabbaleen, traditional waste collectors of Cairo, have been responsible for creating one of the world’s most efficient and sustainable resource-recovery and waste-recycling systems. Since 1950's, the Zabbaleen have been scouring the city of Cairo to collect waste from streets and households using donkey carts and pickup trucks. After bringing the waste to their settlement in Muqattam Village, also called Cairo’s garbage city, the waste is sorted and transformed into useful products like quilts, rugs, paper, livestock food, compost, recycled plastic products etc. After removing recyclable and organic materials, the segregated waste is passed onto various enterprises owned by Zabbaleen families.

The Zabbaleen collect around 60 percent of the total solid waste generated in Cairo and recycle up to 80 percent of the collected waste which is much higher than recycling efficiencies observed in the Western world.  Over the last few decades, the Zabbaleen have refined their collection and sorting methods, built their own labor-operated machines and created a system in which every man, child and woman works.

Tryst with International Companies

In 2002, international waste management companies started operations in Egypt, particularly Cairo, Alexandria and Giza governorates, and the Zabbaleen were sidelined. However after ten years of participation in solid waste management in Cairo, their performance has been dismal. Infact, in 2009 Egyptian government acknowledged that solid waste management has deteriorated alarmingly after the entry of foreign companies.

The waste management situation in Greater Cairo has assumed critical proportions because of high population, increased waste generation and lack of waste collection infrastructure and disposal facilities. Garbage accumulation on streets, along highways and in waterways is a common sight. As a result of the bad performance of multinational private sector companies in SWM in Egypt during the last decade, the level of street cleanliness deteriorated and the pollution resulting from open-burning of trash increased significantly.

Moreover, the Zabbaleen suffered loss of livelihood after the entry of foreign solid waste management companies due to restricted access to their main asset. The mass slaughtering of pigs in 2009, after fears of swine flu epidemic, has lead to accumulation of organic wastes in many parts of the city.

The waste management situation in Cairo is at a serious juncture and concerted efforts are required to improve waste collection and disposal services across the city. The involvement of Zabbaleen is essential to the success of any waste management plan and Mursi government must involve all stake-holders is putting together a sustainable waste management for Cairo.