Cairo municipality has announced that it will start buying domestic trash, in collaboration with associations of the civil society as well as two parliamentarians. The City will pilot the project with two kiosks in the affluent district of Heliopolis to measure the advantages and disadvantages of the project before they expand citywide.

They will buy empty cans and foil for EGP 3/kg ($0.16), plastic bottles for EGP 1.5/kg ($0.084), paper and carton for EGP 0.50/kg ($0.028), wood for EGP 0.20/kg ($0.011), aluminum for EGP 12/kg ($0.67), tin for EGP 0.25/kg ($0.014) and organic garbage for EGP 0.10/kg ($0.005).

Cairo mayor Atef Abdel Hameed stressed in a statement on March 7 (link in Arabic) that he hopes that buying trash from people will translate into keeping the capital’s streets clean. “At the same time, we will encourage citizens to sort out their garbage at home and give them a chance to evaluate which solids can be used and which should go to the kiosks for sale,” he added. 

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Anna Voitenko

There have been several initiatives since 2013 to encourage people to sort out their garbage at home, but with no results. According to the World Bank, Cairo produces more than 15,000 tons of solid waste each day, with only 60% managed by the formal and informal sectors combined. The remaining 40% is left on the streets and at illegal landfill sites. Due to the absence of waste-sorting culture and poor waste management strategies, Cairo residents often find children and adults alike meddling in the bins, picking out cans or plastic bottles, adding to the street garbage problem.

Local waste collectors used to knock on doors for garbage. However, after the City brought in foreign waste management companies in 2003, door-to-door garbage collection was replaced with the doormen of each building collecting the garbage and putting it in large bins dedicated for each neighborhood to be picked up by specially-equipped garbage trucks. 

After the failure of the foreign companies to effectively manage its waste, the City has finally decided to rely on its garbage collectors – better known as the zabaleen – to manage Cairo’s waste. According to the head of the garbage collectors’ community, Shehata El-Moqadass (link in Arabic), municipalities have been considering this since 2015, but are bound by contract with the foreign companies. El-Moqadass explains that the zabaleen will return after the contract with the foreign companies ends later this year.

The City’s garbage collectors live in an area of Cairo known as zabbaleen city – which is home to an independent community of around 6,000 people who mainly work with waste, from garbage collectors and recyclers to sorters and traders.

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Garbage piled up in Giza district in Cairo. Cam McGrath/IPS

According to one research paper titled “Sustainable Solid Waste Management and the Zabaleen’s Right to the City,” foreign companies contracted only recycled 20% of the waste that they collected; the remaining 80% were placed into landfills. The researchers compared this with the zabaleen – who recycle of up to 80% of all the municipal solid waste that they collect.

However, this trash-trade initiative isn’t exclusive to the Egyptian capital. Fayoum (link in Arabic) – a City southwest of Cairo – announced that it too will begin selling garbage to civil society associations and NGOs through trash kiosks.

Nor is it exclusive to Egypt, for that matter. In efforts to restrict plastic and polythene use, in collaboration with the private sector, municipalities in the Indian City of Uttarakhand began buying disposed plastic products from people in July 2016. According to the Times of India, nearly half of the 300 metric ton of garbage collected in the Indian city of Uttarakhand is plastic.

Mexico City has also followed a similar strategy. A market had established a barter system to trade in trash for fresh food. Mercado de Trueque (“barter market”) was founded four years ago as part of the city’s Garbage For Food Program. The monthly market allows people to exchange trash for vouchers, which they can then exchange vegetables, fruit, organic food and plants at the local farmer’s market. In addition to reducing the city’s volume of waste, the initiative helps raise awareness about the importance of recycling in the community.

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