Standing up to garbage

At the Sawy Cultural space in Zamalek, young men and women lined up with portable baskets bearing a sign that said “And what is the solution now?” They were welcoming attendants at a public consultancy session on Egypt’s pressing garbage problem.

The Association for Former International Civil Servants (AFICS) launched the event as part of a series of public consultancies where experts and stakeholders share views, debate arguments and suggest solutions. The activities of the sessions will be filed in a report to the government, according to AFICS.

A look at recent legal reforms and the gap between law and reality were the main focus of the session, which featured government spokesmen, NGO representatives, and legislators.

Mohamed Abdel Aziz el-Gendy, former public prosecutor and head of the Association of the Friends of the Environment explained the development of laws pertaining to garbage. He referred to the close connection between the increase in population and in garbage, which prompted changes in legislation.

“Law 38 for the year 1967 regulated garbage collection by giving licenses to collectors, but its main problem is that the maximum penalty it entailed was LE100,” he said. Violations of the law could include putting garbage in non-allocated spots and sorting in collection spots, among others.

“With the rise of the black cloud problem, the law was finally changed in 2009. The new law prohibits the burning of waste, including agricultural waste that has been abandoned by its owners. New penalties include prison sentences of up to one year and fines ranging from LE5000 to LE100,000,” el-Gendy said. The new law also contains stipulations that oblige municipalities to provide enough clean trash bins, collectors to clean their trucks and to come on time, and citizens to throw trash in allocated spots.

While the new law penalizes municipalities for negligence, it is not always the municipality that is at fault, according to Adly Hussein, governor of Qalyubiyya, which includes districts in Greater Cairo. “My problem is with the centrality of the system. The law regulating cleanliness was only recently changed,” he said.

Another manifestation of the centrality mentioned by Hussein is the bid by international companies to collect garbage on behalf of the government. “The government proposed the matter to me since I overlook districts in Greater Cairo. I was not convinced by the contract and I refrained from signing. I was supposed to collect LE50 million from the people of Qalyubiyya to grant it to the companies in one year. I said that my alternative would be to collect LE20 million and perform the service through my own resources [in the governorate],” Hussein said, adding that his reluctance to approve on the international companies’ mandate was not taken well by the government. Currently, a Spanish and an Italian company handle garbage collection in different districts in Greater Cairo, though not without problems.

According to Hussein, the government never made up for the funding gap that was created after the lapse of a USAID grant for garbage collection support through trucks and maintenance spots. “The government’s budget for cleanliness in a village is worth LE2 per year,” he complained. This government failure has paved the way for grassroots, self-organized garbage collection operations by communities living in the outskirts of Cairo.

Ali Meselhi, Minister of Social Solidarity, who also represented Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, spoke about the social responsibility in the issue of cleanliness without focusing on the government’s role. However, he assured that the government is “highly concerned about the issue.”

“There have been new plots of lands allocated for garbage collection and they are ready to receive trash. Also our Ministry of Military Production is able to run recycling firms, which already exist but need to be multiplied,” he said. Mohamed el-Sawy, who runs the cultural space and collaborates with AFICS in its campaign, demanded that the government provide a map pointing out trash collection sites.

The government responsibility for trash has been seen as a fiasco since the recent accumulation of trash in the streets of Giza Governorate. The trash panorama appeared after a strike by the workers of the Italian company contracted by the government to handle trash in that area.
Other portions of the session emphasized the instrumental role of society in confronting the garbage problem. “Women in households can solve half the problem by sorting from the source,” said Mervat el-Tallawy, head of AFICS. “Shop owners cannot keep on cleaning their spaces and throwing their garbage in the street.” Speakers repeatedly referred to a problem in “the culture of hygiene.”

Abdel Aziz Higazi, former Prime Minister and head of the Federation of Non-Governmental Organizations, stressed what NGOs can do to contribute to a potential solution. “We have some 26,000 NGOs in Egypt and 100 businessmen foundations that can work in the field of cleanliness. We’ve prepared a database of who can contribute and in what way.”

Higazi said that the garbage problem can only be solved locally. “Today, [independent] garbage collectors have become stronger than the government. We need to learn from this and we need to think of the proper return for their services.”

El-Tallawy reminded the audience of the wealth embedded in garbage, pointing out how gas is produced from garbage and is becoming an alternative to electricity in countries like Japan. “Garbage is an immense fortune,” she said, referring to the high potential returns that could be generated from garbage through recycling processes. “The waste of today is the resource of tomorrow.”

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