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The Cairo Garbage Calamity

Mises Daily: Wednesday, May 05, 2010 by

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The Sundance Channel recently aired Cairo: Garbage, in the series Cities On Speed. The documentary is about the colossal breakdown of garbage collection in Cairo, one of the biggest cities in the world.[1] Though it fails to answer some key questions, the film does, however, document the failure of the mercantilist state to do something as basic as cleaning up the garbage. While the documentary never states this clearly, it appears that the government destroyed a traditional and functioning system of private garbage collection and recycling.

Cairo: Garbage begins by telling us that no one really knows how many people live in Cairo. Eighteen million seems likely, but some think it could be half that. The documentary was made in 2009, and at that time garbage pickup had broken down and trash was accumulating along the streets and alleyways of Cairo's richest and poorest neighborhoods.

The film beautifully documents the attempts to deal with and resolve the breakdown of order. Like in a good drama, each "character" is allowed to speak and their perspectives reveal as much about their mental framework, values, and social roles as about the problem itself.

The different perspectives of the people in the documentary make for fascinating viewing. Characters include a restaurant owner in a fancy neighborhood, a foreign garbage-company executive, a garbage-company manager, a woman running a local environmental group, and a bridegroom in a Christian garbage village. Most people seem faced with new intractable problems they can't easily solve despite their attempts.

At the end, the documentary blames the garbage problem on the great increase in population. It also gives plenty of evidence that a radical change was responsible.

According to the film, communities of Egyptian Coptic Christians traditionally used to gather the trash. For a modest fee they'd come to your house or apartment every day to pick up the trash and take it back to the "garbage-village" neighborhoods where they live. They'd sort and recycle everything they could, using it in their own manufacturing.

The film shows the stages of the production process. Paper was used to make products like fancy paper bags and stationery. Fabric would be turned into things like stuffed animals. Plastic was used to make hangers and the like. The food fed the pigs that were then sold when full-grown. While the conditions were unpleasant, the communities were full-blown economies using garbage from Cairo as a feedstock instead of dumping it all in a landfill.

What happened next is a little hazy in the documentary.

The film claims that the garbage villages couldn't handle all the garbage from all the people — but it doesn't give evidence why this was true.

Cairo brought in foreign companies to collect the garbage. They insisted people use bins and western methods like big garbage trucks and corporations. People had to pay for this via an extra charge on their electric bill.

The problem was that people weren't used to finding garbage bins and then putting their garbage in the bin. The cairenes would either put the garbage on the side of the road or next to the bin. The garbage companies thought Egyptians found it too taxing to actually put the garbage in the bins, and even produced commercials to encourage putting garbage in the bins, not just near them.

The cairenes had been used to people coming to their buildings and collecting the garbage. In the past they hadn't needed to go downstairs to 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 to big garbage trucks. It wasn't easy for many people to find bins, and if they knew where one was, it might be quite a walk. (If you've never seen this system, imagine taking your garbage not to your curb but down your street or even around the corner. Now imagine doing that several times a week.) They liked the old system with inexpensive daily pickup at home and understandably didn't see the changes as progressive but as an imposition.

To make matters worse, it appears that the western companies couldn't figure out how to run their businesses in Egypt. Residents would constantly complain that garbage was not picked up regularly — they were used to daily pickup. Attempts to call to get garbage pickup would fail. The owner of a fancy restaurant frequented by ambassadors claimed that garbage men would just dump trash by his restaurant. Apparently people would even harass garbage collectors, but it isn't clear why or if that was really true or if it was just an excuse for them to not collect trash.

To get service people had to pay twice. First, they were assessed an extra charge for garbage collection on their electric bill. However, in order to really get service, they'd have to pay a second time: either they'd tip the government-endorsed garbage men or they'd pay private garbage men to do the job.

The documentary shows there was a functioning system of garbage collection that had co-evolved with the norms of Egyptian society. The government then stepped in to "solve the problem." It forced everyone to pay money to companies using western techniques that hadn't been adapted to the realities of Egyptian society. The companies couldn't cope with the quantity of garbage or managing Egyptian employees. The western-style companies apparently didn't recycle as intensively and couldn't provide low-cost daily garbage pickup like the garbage village system.

The garbage companies and government would also try to persuade people to change their habits to use the bin system that was convenient for companies, but less convenient than the old system. The companies were also unable to figure out how to efficiently collect the garbage that was lying around in easy-to-access piles on the side of the streets.

At the end of the film we learn that the government then killed all the pigs in garbage villages. The pigs were the key component for processing the vast quantities of organic garbage Cairo produces year round. As one would expect, this has vastly increased the amount of rotting garbage on the streets. The situation was so bad that even New York Times articles on the subject are clear that this is an example of government failure.

The first article on this topic is from May 2009.[2] According to the Michael Slackman, the government disliked the 400,000 Christian zabaleen who live in garbage villages. The government was killing pigs to get the zabaleen to live in sanitary conditions.[3] The irony is that everyone else is living a less sanitary life without the zabaleen, plus the zabaleen made a living providing sanitation services that are by their nature relatively unsanitary.

The private companies couldn't handle trash collection on their own. The New York Times states that 6,000 tons daily were processed by zabaleen and 2,000 by private carters. As Slackman writes,

Many here acknowledge that this is a system that is easy to criticize, from the pigs and the unsanitary living conditions to the sight of children hauling trash, their faces smeared and their clothing stained.

But it is how they eat and survive. And it is how they have remained independent of a government they do not trust. They would not object to having the system fixed. They just do not want it wrenched away…

"Maybe the government has noble goals," said Mr. Gindy, whose nonprofit group runs [a school that zabaleen children attend]. "But the way they address the problem is not good. The government always says this is the decision and you will follow."

Slackman's second article was published in September 2009 and talks about the disastrous aftermath of the new program.[4] The zabaleen stopped picking up organic trash once the pigs were slaughtered, and now the problems are worse than ever.

The city-approved garbage men had also gone on strike. (The nice thing about private collectors who are small businessmen is that if one goes on strike, you can hire another one who wants to make some money.)

The garbage situation in Cairo is a classic example of government imposing a supposedly rational and modern solution that fits the needs of the people in charge but doesn't fit the needs of people. The end result is a spectacular failure.

Notes

[1] Check airtimes here. The documentary may also be "on demand." (Cable companies like Time Warner Cable of NYC have a free HD on demand channel with a Sundance section.) The other documentaries in the series are also fascinating looks at city politics and governance.

[2] Michael Slackman, "Cleaning Cairo, but Taking a Livelihood" (New York Times, May 24, 2009).

[3] Swine flu was the excuse the government used at first to kill the pigs, but they also admitted they didn't like the garbage villages. The swine-flu scare also meant the government didn't open schools after summer break till October. (This appears to have been part of a ploy to reorganize schools with children attending only three days a week to cut down on class size.) They also ordered private schools to remain closed.

The health ministry claimed the slaughter of pigs wasn't their decision and that it came from higher-ups at the presidential and governor level.

[4] Michael Slackman, "Belatedly, Egypt Spots Flaws in Wiping Out Pigs" (New York Times September 19, 2009).