In Egypt, there’s a leftover from last year’s revolution that's starting to cause a bit of a stink. It took 18 days of mass protest to oust Hosni Mubarak, but in the ensuing 18 months, Egyptians have run up against a far more pungent problem.
Though Cairo has never been a particularly clean city, growing piles of garbage on the streets have become a major problem in the Egyptian capital. In the wake of the revolution, the lack of garbage collection in the city has reached crisis levels. The problem has become so severe that the new Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, announced that cleaning the garbage from the streets was one of his top five priorities to improve the lives of Egyptians during his first 100 days in office.
But with the situation unchanged and garbage continuing to pile up in Cairo two months after Morsi took office, some have begun to question whether or not the 100-day figure might as well be rubbish.
Between 15,000 and 17,000 tons of garbage are disposed of each day, and the government no longer has the stability or resources to manage the overwhelming tide of trash. Local garbage collectors (known as the Zabbaleen) collect 8,000 tons of the trash, and international garbage companies another 3,000, leaving 6,000 tons uncollected each day, the AP reported.
Different strategies have been presented to deal with the issue, though none are anywhere near implementation. According to the AP, Waleed el-Senoussi, manager of the Clean Homeland campaign and hygiene department in Morsi’s office, said in an interview that Cairo is looking for a way to tackle the problem by killing two birds with one stone: One plan proposes burning the garbage for energy
“The big strategy is to turn the garbage from a pain, a burden and a problem into a product that has a market value,” he said. “It is unreasonable to solve our problems by going backward.”
Egypt used to have an unorthodox, but functional, system for dealing with its garbage problem: The Zabbaleen, a community of mainly Coptic Christians who live in the slums of Manshiyat Nassir on the outskirts of Cairo. The slum was dubbed “Garbage City.”
For many years, the Zabbaleen would go door-to-door in Cairo and collect garbage for a small fee, transporting it on carts back to their neighborhood. There, it would be sorted by entire families; anything of practical value would be kept, recyclables would be sold and organic leftovers would be fed to pigs kept in the community. The system was a local phenomenon, and environmentally friendly to boot.
At their best, the Zabbaleen recycled 80 percent of what they brought in, concerting items that were not immediately recyclable into trade goods that could be resold at the marketplace. The small community of some 150,000 garbage collectors gave credence to the age-old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
In recent years, however, the Zabbaleen became beset by problems. Cairo’s 2003 population boom was too much for them to keep up with, so Mubarak introduced international garbage companies to deal with the excess waste. Chaos ensued when locals did not know whether to use the dumpsters provided by the companies, or to wait for the Zabbaleen to come to their door. While the Zabbaleen resented feeling like they were being squeezed out by Mubarak, citizens resented having to pay for both services.
And when the Zabbaleen’s pigs were slaughtered during the 2009 global swine flu outbreak, they lost their method of disposing of organic waste. Now, in the wake of the revolution, the system is quite literally a mess.
"Residents don’t wait for garbage collection. Instead, they throw it out onto the streets, and we have to collect it," Zareef Jameel, a collector from Garbage City told RT.
Sahnouda Husni, another garbage collector, said that “Pigs used to eat these organic remains… Now, we have to pick up all the organic material, put it in the containers. But the problem is how to dispose of it. We have no place to process it."
"They said garbage vehicles were unable to access narrow alleys. We prepared small vehicles. Yet, the regional government and cleaning commission violated the contracts," Khalid Abdul Hameed, Treasurer for the Egyptian Public services society said.
For a young Egyptian government dealing with a new relationship with Israel, insurgency in the Sinai desert and deep divisions over Islamic rule, the trash trouble has become an immediate challenge. In the meantime, all locals can do is hope that Morsi’s words become reality.