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AUC students aim to turn ‘Trash into Cash’ in Cairo slum

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Project draws inspiration from a similar recycling model applied in the Zabaalin community, which has managed to create a “self sustaining recycling system” that recycles approximately 80% of collected trash

Two AUC students are drawing on lessons from Cairo's Zabaalin community, which has managed to create a system to recycle about 80% of the neighbourhood's trash, for a new trash disposal program (Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

Two AUC students are drawing on lessons from Cairo’s Zabaalin community, which has managed to create a system to recycle about 80% of the neighbourhood’s trash, for a new trash disposal program
(Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

Cars drift towards the side of the road and pedestrians cross to the other side as the large pile of trash blocks the road keeping everything, but the flies surrounding it, away.

The scene is a common one in Cairo, the city which produces about 14,000 tons of solid waste daily, according to statistics from the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency.

Baher Ibrahim and Nadah Al-Shazly, two graduate students studying community psychology at the American University in Cairo (AUC), proposed a potential solution to the trash problem in Ezbet Khairallah, one of Cairo’s informal settlements.

The proposed project, “Trash into Cash”, attempts to render trash in Ezbet Khairallah into useful products, such as cardboard or bags, Ibrahim said.

The students came up with the idea of the project during their course work on “prevention and intervention” in communities. The “fairly new” discipline, community psychology, has a “unique approach to societal problems and social change” that focuses on people, Ibrahim said.

“Trash into Cash”, which secured a $500 grant from the AUC, draws inspiration from a similar recycling model applied in the Zabaalin (garbage collectors) neighbourhood. The Zabaalin community has managed to create a “self sustaining recycling system” that recycles approximately 80% of the collected trash. Contracts between the government and private companies requires the latter to recycle only 25% of the collected trash, Ibrahim said.

Women from Cairo's Zabaalin community pick through piles of trash, separating glass and plastic for recycling. The community's recycling system inspired two AUC students to develop a program to help other low-income neighborhoods recycle. (Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

Women from Cairo’s Zabaalin community pick through piles of trash, separating glass and plastic for recycling. The community’s recycling system inspired two AUC students to develop a program to help other low-income neighborhoods recycle.
(Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

The project proposes a “participatory, strengths-based approach to the trash problem,” he said.

With the grant money, the students are planning to organise a workshop with the help of a local NGO “Kheir w Baraka”, based in Ezbet Khairallah. The workshop will bring in the neighbourhood residents together with the two students, who will act as community consultants, along with other local non-profits, including the Association for Protection of the Environment (APE), which has been working in Zabaalin for over 25 years, Ibrahim said.

APE will lead the two-day workshop to help the residents of Ezbet Khairalla identify their best resources, the equipment needed for the recycling process and the potential products they could create, he said.

The workshop is a part of the project’s “needs assessment” and “asset planning”, two important principles of community psychology, he said.  The processes determine the project’s needs and resources.

“While they do not seem as exciting as the actual work, they are absolutely essential for whether deciding to carry on with a project or abandon it,” he said.

The students have already conducted a focus group with 10-12 residents to learn more about the neighbourhood’s needs.  The results showed that trash was the neighbourhood’s main problem.

“There are people who are already receptive to the idea of recycling,” he said.

In Cairo's Zabaalin community, residents turn used plastic bags into usable household items such as clothes hangers (Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

In Cairo’s Zabaalin community, residents turn used plastic bags into usable household items such as clothes hangers
(Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

The proposed project “did not appear in a vacuum”, he said. “It simply built on existing infrastructure.”

Kheir w Baraka has already applied a system of trash collection and separation in 30%of Ezbet Khairallah, he said. The “Trash into Cash” project aims to expand this system to the rest of the neighbourhood and build on it by recycling.

The students are planning to request additional funding for their project from companies that work in the field, potential investors, and donors. However, they are expecting to face some challenges convincing potential funders of the importance of recruiting people from Zabaalin, who are looked down upon, seen as “ignorant because they don’t have formal college degrees” and considered a “health hazard”, he said.

“A community such as Zabaalin, of similar socioeconomic and living situations as the residents of Ezbet Khairallah, who have their own success story, would resonate more with the primary stakeholders in such a project, the people who live in, work in and wake up every day in Ezbet Khairallah,” he said.

About the author

Marwa Morgan

Marwa Morgan

Arts and Culture reporter

Marwa is a journalist and street photographer interested in cultural identities and contemporary art. Her website is www.marwamorgan.com. Follow her on twitter @marwamorgan.


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