Cairo: The City That Wants To Buy Your Garbage

3 mins

Will a government ‘cash for trash’ scheme help clean up the Egyptian capital’s   garbage-strewn streets, asks Brittany Wilkerson 

We’ve all heard of Paypal, Bitcoin and Apple Pay, but now a new type of payment is available to residents of Cairo – cash for their trash.

While the Egyptian capital is home to ancient temples and the great pyramids, it is also one of the most polluted cities in the world, with the 18 million residents producing more than 15,000 tonnes of waste a day.

With no centralized garbage collection system, and trash casually thrown onto the streets, the problem – as well as the rubbish – is spilling over and impacting on public health, tourism and the economy.

Traditionally, the Zabbaleen (Arabic for Garbage People) community have been tackling the problem, with men collecting garbage on donkey carts as well as piled up pick-ups from all over the city. They take it to the Muqattam area, where the women and children hand-sort the rubbish into 16 different types of waste. They reuse or recycle 85 per cent of all waste they collect – a far higher rate than Western recycling initiatives, but they don’t have enough manpower to keep up with the growing waste problem.

cairo trash

The Zabaleen use donkeys and carts to pick up garbage from the streets. Image: Commons Wikimedia

According to the latest available figures, approximately 35 per cent of the waste isn’t collected, meaning it piles up in and around the city, polluting the soil, air and waterways.

Cairo: Sell Your Garbage

To help tackle this enormous waste problem, the government is behind an initiative, Sell Your Garbage, to purchase residents’ recyclables – plastic bottles, paper, cans and cardboard – in a bid to stop people throwing them away. Two kiosks have opened so far in the middle and upper-class district of Heliopolis but the government hopes to roll out the scheme across the city eventually.

The cash amounts aren’t large – aluminum cans sell for $0.50/kg, plastics for $0.17/kg, and cardboard for $0.06/kg – but as Cairo resident ALQaher Khaled Youssef, said: ‘Maybe it can provide citizens with an extra income and, at the same time, they can become educated on how to clean their bins and separate recyclables from non-recyclables.’

He says the idea is much-needed. ‘The residential waste management in Egypt is poor,’ he says. ‘Some areas in Cairo do not have trash bins so people throw garbage in wide open areas, attracting flies and creating odours.’

All residents need to do is sort their waste for recycling and take it to one of the waste management kiosks, which are open seven days a week, in return for cash. The public’s waste is then sold on to recycling contractors.

Cairo’s eight million residents produce more than 15,000 tonnes of waste a day. Image: iStock

The scheme kicked off in March and, if successful, it could transform the long-standing waste problem that plagues Egypt.

‘I think it’s a very late but important step since Egypt, and especially Cairo, is one of the most polluted cities worldwide with so much waste that many governments have failed to solve the issue,’ says Nermin Sabry, Compliance Specialist and Cairo resident.

‘If people in Egypt start recycling, it would cut back costs for many sectors, save energy as well as keep our streets cleaner. I think the scheme is definitely the right direction, continues Nermin. ‘Egypt now needs recycling more than ever. The nation should and must start protecting the environment and go green.’

But can cash for trash incentive schemes like this one really work? Deposit return schemes, whereby you pay a little extra upfront when purchasing drink containers and get this back when you recycle them, have proven to be successful around the world. According to The Guardian, the return rate is 76.5% in South Australia, and 99% where recycling machines are located in Germany. This shows that money can change people’s behaviour. Only time will tell if Cairo’s scheme will be a success.

Tags: , , , ,