Garbage raises a stink in Cairo

Residents upset by collection breakdown

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“We have designed an unsustainable system for the city,” said Laila Iskandar, an expert in waste management. “It is a chain and no one thinks of the chain. Only the end point Out of sight, out of mind.”

Ineffective efforts

In late July, Mr. Morsi launched a “Clean Homeland” campaign, giving free brooms and plastic bags to volunteers from civic groups and the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs.

They hit several Cairo districts, helped by local authorities, for two days and then turned it into a weekly campaign. They swarm the streets, removing piles of trash.

But the garbage quickly returns.

In Ms. Ahmed’s neighborhood in south Cairo, residents say, the volunteers kept watch for hours to fend off dumpers and diggers.

“Even the girls were collecting garbage. The street was sparkling,” said Mamdouh Gamea, a dentist. “But it didn’t last. It is a matter of behavior.”

Waleed el-Senoussi, manager of the Clean Homeland campaign and hygiene file in Mr. Morsi’s office, said the idea was to define the problems and come up with solutions.

The government, he said in an interview, wants to tackle the problem on a national level and issue bids for a more technological system that includes burning waste for energy.

“The big strategy is to turn the garbage from a pain, a burden and a problem into a product that has a market value,” he said. “It is unreasonable to solve our problems by going backward.”

But experts fear they will trample the traditional systems that have served Cairo well.

Systemic breakdown

The traditional way is that of the zabbaleen, up to 150,000 informal garbagemen who go door to door and collect trash for a minimal fee, transport it to their own neighborhoods and sort out the recyclables.

The organic material is fed to pigs. (It’s a Christian-dominated industry; Muslims shun the animals.)

The result has been an astounding recycling rate of around 80 percent, and an informal recycling business in which they invested a cumulative $150 million over the past 40 years, according to Ms. Iskandar.

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