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Cairo's Illuminating Garbage Problem

Cairo's Illuminating Garbage Problem

Ratings: (0)|Views: 176|Likes:
Published by Anders Mikkelsen
The Sundance Channel is airing Tuesday April 20th 2010 a documentary Cities On Speed - Cairo: Garbage about the colossal breakdown of garbage collection in Cairo, one of the biggest cities in the world. The documentary fails to answer some key questions, however it does document the failure of the mercantilist state to do something as basic as clean up the garbage. While the film never states this clearly, it appears that the government destroyed an old functioning private traditional system of garbage collection and recycling. The film beautifully documents the attempts by everyone to deal with and resolve the breakdown of order. Like any good drama, each character is allowed to speak and their perspective reveal as much about their mental framework, values, and social role as about the problem itself.
The Sundance Channel is airing Tuesday April 20th 2010 a documentary Cities On Speed - Cairo: Garbage about the colossal breakdown of garbage collection in Cairo, one of the biggest cities in the world. The documentary fails to answer some key questions, however it does document the failure of the mercantilist state to do something as basic as clean up the garbage. While the film never states this clearly, it appears that the government destroyed an old functioning private traditional system of garbage collection and recycling. The film beautifully documents the attempts by everyone to deal with and resolve the breakdown of order. Like any good drama, each character is allowed to speak and their perspective reveal as much about their mental framework, values, and social role as about the problem itself.

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Published by: Anders Mikkelsen on Apr 19, 2010
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06/06/2010

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Cairos Illuminating Garbage Problem[Draft by Anders Mikkkelsenamikkelsen@yahoo.com]
The Sundance Channel is airing Tuesday April 20th a documentary
Cities On Speed - Cairo: Garbage
 about the colossal breakdown of garbage collection in Cairo, one of the biggest cities in the world.
1
Thedocumentary fails to answer some key questions, however it does document the failure of themercantilist state to do something as basic as clean up the garbage. While the film never states thisclearly, it appears that the government destroyed an old functioning private traditional system of garbage collection and recycling. The film beautifully documents the attempts by everyone to deal withand resolve the breakdown of order. Like any good drama, each character is allowed to speak and theirperspective reveal as much about their mental framework, values, and social role as about the problemitself.The documentary
Cairo: Garbage
begins by telling us that no one really knows how many people live inCairo. 18 million seems like a good number for Cairo, but some think it could be half that. Thedocumentary was made in 2009, and at that time garbage pick-up had broken down with trashaccumulating on side of streets and alleyways of Cairos rich and poor neighborhoods. At the end thedocumentary blames the garbage problem on the great increase in population. However thedocumentary gives plenty of evidence that there was a radical change responsible.According to the film, traditionally communities of Egyptian Coptic Christians used to pick up the trash.For a modest fee they'd come to your home or apartment every day and bring it back to the 'garbagevillage' neighborhoods they lived in. They'd sort and recycle everything they could, using it in their ownmanufacturing. The film shows the stages of the production process. Paper was used by the residents of Garbage Villages to make paper products like fancy paper bags and stationery. Fabric would makefabric products like stuffed animals. Plastic was used to make plastic products like hangers. The food fedthe pigs which were sold when full grown. While not surprisingly the conditions are unpleasant, thecommunities were full blown economies using garbage from Cairo as a feedstock instead of dumping itall in a landfill.What happened next is a little hazy in the documentary.The documentary said that the garbage villages couldnt handle all the garbage from all the people  butit doesnt give evidence why this was true.Cairo brought in foreign companies to collect the Garbage. They insisted people use bins and westernmethods like big garbage trucks and corporations. People had to pay for this via an extra charge on theirelectrical bill.The problem was that people werent used to finding garbage bins and then putting their garbage in thebin. With the new system Egyptians would either put the garbage on the side of the road or next to thebin. The garbage companies thought Egyptians found it too taxing to actually put the garbage in thebins, and even produced commercials to encourage putting garbage in the bins not just near it. The
 
Egyptians however had been used to people coming to their building and collecting the garbage. Theydidnt have to go downstairs and find a bin on the street and then get the garbage up and over the lid of the bin. Worse yet, garbage bins were large and had to be placed in areas where they were accessible bybig garbage trucks. It wasnt isnt easy for many people to find bins, and if they knew where one was itmight be quite a walk. (If youve never seen this system, imagine taking your garbage not to your curbbut down your street or even around the corner. Now imagine doing several times a week.) They likedthe old system with inexpensive daily pick up at home and understandably didnt see the changes asprogressive, but an imposition.To make matters worse it appears that the western companies couldnt figure out how to run theirbusiness in Egypt. Residents would constantly complain that garbage was not picked up regularly. Theywere used to daily pickup. Attempts to call to get garbage pickup would fail. One character, the owner of a fancy restaurant frequented by ambassadors, claimed that garbage men would just dump trash by hisrestaurant. Apparently people would even harass garbage collectors, but it isnt clear why or if that wasreally true or an excuse to not work.To get service people had to pay twice. On the electrical bill theyd be assessed an extra charge forgarbage collection. In order to really get service theyd have to pay a second time. Either theyd tip thegovernment endorsed garbage men or they'd pay private garbage men to do the job. It also wasnt clearwhy the restaurant owner or other people didnt pay enterprising garbage people to come and takegarbage away. One can only assume a combination of factors - alternatives werent allowed to exist,people refused to pay again for a service they were paying for, qualified people were working atcapacity. At any rate the new system has resulted in society no longer taking care of its own garbageproblem.The documentary shows there was a functioning system of garbage collection that had co-evolved withthe norms of Egyptian society. The government then stepped in to solve the problem. It forcedeveryone to pay money to companies using western techniques that hadnt been adapted to therealities of Egyptian society. The companies couldnt cope with the quantity of garbage or managingEgyptian employees. The western style companies apparently didnt recycle as intensively and couldntprovide low cost daily garbage pickup like the garbage village system. The garbage companies andgovernment would also try to persuade people to change their habits to use the bin system which wasconvenient for companies, but less convenient than the old system. The companies were also unable tofigure out how to efficiently collect the garbage that was lying around in easy to access piles on the sideof the streets.The different perspectives of the people in the documentary make for fascinating viewing. Charactersinclude, a restaurant owner in a fancy neighborhood, a foreign garbage company executive, a garbagecompany manager, a woman running a local environmental group, and a bridegroom in ChristianGarbage Village. Most people seem faced with new intractable problems they cant easily solve despitetheir attempts.
 
At the end of the film we learn that the government then killed all the pigs in Garbage Villages. The pigswere the key component for processing the vast quantities of organic garbage Cairo produces yearround. One would expect this to vastly increase the amount of rotting garbage on the streets, and onewould be right. The situation was so bad that even New York Times articles on the subject are clear thatthis is an example of government failure.The first article from is from May 2009.
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According to the NYTs Michael Slackman, the governmentdisliked the 400,000 Christian zabaleen who lived in garbage villages. The government was killing pigs toget zabaleen to live in sanitary conditions. (The irony is that everyone else is living a less sanitary lifewithout the zabaleen, plus the zabaleen made a living doing providing sanitation services that are bytheir nature relatively unsanitary.) The private companies couldn't handle trash collection on their own.The NY Times said 6,000 tons daily was processed by zabaleen and 2,000 by private carters. There aresome choice quotes -The zabaleen and their supporters argue that if the people of Cairo could be taught to separateorganic and inorganic waste before throwing out their household trash, the problem could besolved. The pigs could be raised in farms outside of the city and the organic waste could becarted out there dailyMany here acknowledge that this is a system that is easy to criticize, from the pigs and theunsanitary living conditions to the sight of children hauling trash, their faces smeared and theirclothing stained.But it is how they eat and survive. And it is how they have remained independent of agovernment they do not trust. They would not object to having the system fixed. They just donot want it wrenched awayMaybe the government has noble goals, said Mr. Gindy, whose nonprofit group runs theschool that Basem attends. But the way they address the problem is not good. The governmentalways says this is the decision and you will follow.The second article in September 2009, also by Michael Slackman, talks about the disastrous aftermath of the new program.
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It talks about how the formal system is hopeless and the problems worse than ever.The Zabaleen had stopped picking up organic trash once pigs were slaughtered.The city approved garbagemen had also gone on strike. (The nice thing about private collectors who aresmall businessmen is that if one goes on strike you can hire another one who wants to make somemoney.)Swine flu was the excuse the government used at first to kill the pigs, but they also admitted they didn'tlike the garbage cities. Swine Flu scare also meant government didn't open schools after summer breaktill October. (This appears to have been part of a ploy to re-organize schools with children attending onlythree days a week to cut down on class size.) They also ordered private schools be shut.

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