First toxic waste management facility in region opens in Alexandria

The city of Alexandria last month became home to the first poisonous chemical waste management facility in the Middle East and North Africa region, which principally deals with mercury.

The project, initially proposed in 2007 by Egyptian environmentalists to battle the effects of mismanaged mercury disposal, was developed through a joint venture between the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA).

In Egypt’s case, the prime contributor of mercurial waste is fluorescent lamps or tubes, such as those seen illuminating the plethora of urban billboards. Fluorescent tubes are filled with mercurial vapor that illuminates when excited with electricity.

“When these tubes are carelessly disposed of with general waste, the mercury vapor inside them enters the natural biological cycles and can cause deformities and often death, particularly for plant life and fish,” says Fatma Abu Shouk, head of the environmental management sector at EEAA. “People think they are just regular glass light bulbs, and so they end up smashed or disposed of in general garbage piles or rivers.”

According to the EEAA, Egypt produces 40 million fluorescent bulbs annually, of which 8 million end up discarded as general waste.

“When we realized the dangerous levels of mercury in the environment, we began storing discarded tubes in office buildings, hospitals and government institutions – but something had to be done urgently,” she says.

At the end of 2007, the Safe Disposal of Hazardous Waste Project was established when KOICA agreed to provide US$3 million for the cause, as well as the technology, the personnel training, and the expert management of the facility. The EEAA would also provide an additional LE3.5 million from its own funds.

Egyptian engineers trained in South Korea over the past three years while the technology was imported and set up in the Waste Management Complex in Alexandria's Nasriya district.

Now that the facility is open, Korean experts are assisting and supervising its development.

“Korea is proud to contribute and to witness the successful cooperation between two governments acting as part of a greater cause,” says Jun Mo Kim, a representative from KOICA’s Egypt office. “We hope that this is the start of a successful partnership that can potentially resolve further crucial environmental issues.”

While content with the development of such a project, some environmentalists remain skeptical that Egypt's biggest waste disposal problems are not its lack of facilities, but the systems by which fluorescent tubes are disposed of and collected.

“The major concern with this initiative is how these tubes are going to be collected, stored and transported to the facilities in the first place,” says Kareem Waleed, a leading member of the Spirit of Youth, a garbage segregation and waste disposal management NGO. “As of now, garbage collection systems are not even able to manage general waste, let alone segregate the garbage into hazardous and non-hazardous for efficient disposal.”

According to Environment Minister Maged George's statement at the facility’s opening ceremony, these problems of poor waste management performance have been corrected through “contractual adjustments” and “severe fines,” and the ministry is working hard to ensure efficient transportation of fluorescent tubes and poisonous chemicals to the facility.

Jun Mo Kim says he is optimistic about the project's future but KOICA will continue to provide support.

“We are going to monitor the project closely and continuously for a few years to come in order to ensure that the Egyptian government will be able to effectively sustain the facility on its own for the long term."

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