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Case study: Exporting expertise to Egypt

Trash on the streets of Cairo has been managed by informal collectors known as the Zabbaleen for over 60 years. Despite a teeming network of hand sorters and basic reprocessors the Egyptian waste management system remains hugely underdeveloped.

Rubbish on the streets of Cairo has been managed by informal collectors known as the zabbaleen for more than 60 years. But despite this teeming network of hand sorters and basic reprocessors, the Egyptian waste management system remains hugely underdeveloped.

For this reason, Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association (RA), and Matthew Farrow, executive director at Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), went on a joint trade mission to meet officials at the Egyptian ministry of environment and assess opportunities to alleviate the country’s waste management problems.

Farrow told MRW: “There is potential, certainly, in the medium term for British waste companies to do business in Egypt. What struck me, in terms of the zabbaleen discussion, is that the local context and local politics is important and, as a UK company, you need to understand this.”

Farrow added that the current environment minister Laila Iskandar was a particularly strong supporter of the informal collectors. He identified three particular areas with potential for UK companies to tackle in Egypt: organics, landfill and business parks

He said that most organic waste is left to rot or dumped. The zabbaleen often do not want it because they tend to be looking for plastics or scrap metal.

Around 60 composting plants have been built in Egypt in the past 10-15 years, but few are operational due to poor design, operation or location, and Farrow said UK companies could address this problem because “the UK organics sector has really taken off in the past 10 years, with a lot of expertise and a lot of investment in composting and anaerobic digestion (AD).”

The UK has also been reliant on landfill for so many years that it has become skilled at designing and running good quality sites, whereas Egypt has around 90% uncontrolled landfill, according to Farrow. While Iskandar plans to move Egypt to a recycling society, Farrow points out that it will take a long time, and properly run landfill sites are the first step.

He also visited a large industrial park outside Cairo, including a plant for shampoo and conditioner manufacturer L’Oreal. It has a company-wide zero waste to landfill policy, so it is looking for partners in the Egyptian waste management industry for more recycling and refuse-derived-fuel options.

Farrow said: “Some of the UK consultants could try to set up good practice across a whole park, with a network system linked to reprocessors, who need the raw material.”

But the major barrier to entry is the political situation in Egypt. Farrow said his members were likely to wait until after the country’s upcoming elections before proceeding.

Dr Adam Read, Ricardo-AEA’s practice director for resource efficiency and waste management, who was also on the trade mission, told MRW that the country lacks data, with little idea of material composition or collection figures. He said British consultants are respected globally and could help produce such data.

Read has worked with informal collectors such as the zabbaleen across the world, from Poland to Costa Rica. He believes the most important strategy is to build trust. The workers also need to be given free inoculations due to the nature of their roles and they need to be put in a high-visibility environment for safety. Waste management companies also have to employ such workers in a way that clearly improves their quality of life at the same time.

Alban Forster, board director of SLR Consulting, said that, despite more pressing concerns such as water and sanitation, waste was still high on the agenda for Egypt. He predicted that there will be a number of waste procurements in the next five years and only one or two in the next couple of years.

At the end of the trade mission, the visitors concluded that there are medium-term prospects for British entrants into the Egyptian market, and they would have to consider integrating the role of the zabbaleen into recycling.

Egypt waste facts:

  • 83 million inhabitants
  • most densely populated country in the Middle East
  • volume of domestic waste produced around 18 million tonnes (2010)
  • estimated annual increase of 3.4% due to population growth and changing consumer habits.
  • Approximately 60% of waste produced is collected, of which less than 20% is properly disposed of or reused. 

Source: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit

The Zabbaleen

The Zabbaleen are informal refuse collectors that have been cleaning up the garbage in Cairo since around the 1940s.

Sheila Rozeik, founding trustee of the Zabbaleen Trust: There is a great opportunity for the Zabbaleen to become more integrated into the formal system. This is largely through the efforts of Dr Laila Iskandar, Egyptian Minister for the Environment, who values their recycling expertise and efficiency.

She has just taken the first steps to integrate them into the systems of the Egyptian commercial companies as employees.

But will those local companies, and foreign waste companies, bidding for the new contracts in 2017, be willing to take on board the Zabbaleen community’s unique expertise in recycling efficiency or will they just dump and burn the waste, as happened after the foreign contracts were awarded in 2002? 

On another note Iskandar also has a huge task in persuading Cairo’s citizens to separate their garbage in the home and make it ready for separated collection at street level.


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