CAIRO: How can sustainable development conditions be achieved for everyone? Delegates from across the globe considered this question during a conference held in Cairo this week.
Hosted under the banner, “Towards a Culture of Sustainable Communities, Economies and Environment, the two-day conference hosted academics and workers in the waste industry and activists from Egypt, South Africa, India and the Philippines.
Annie Leonard, maker of “The Story of Stuff, a 20-minute animated documentary about the lifecycle of material goods, said that discussion of sustainable communities “is the most important conversation we could be having right now.
“We’re using too much stuff: all of the resources, water, minerals, trees – the everything that we are using to produce, consume and dispose, Leonard said.
“On every front there are serious red flags being shown across the spectrum. We’re losing 30 million hectares of forests per year, there’s a decline in clean water and biodiversity in every ecological system.
Leonard also warned against the pervasive use of toxins.
“The old way of thinking is that toxics are inevitable, but that we can control them. We cannot, they’re showing up in every body tested. A US NGO that tested the umbilical cord of a newborn baby found the presence of 287 industrial chemicals, Leonard said.
As a result of unequal sharing of the world’s resources Leonard said that “half the world’s population now live on less than $3 a day and 1 billion people are hungry – a disgusting milestone.
“The US has 5 percent of the world’s population but produces 30 percent of its waste. It exports its hazardous waste and technologies and products like banned pesticides. The most dangerous thing it exports however is its take-make-waste economy, Leonard added.
While these discussions are not new, “today’s discussion is very different Leonard explained. “It’s a life and death situation.
Leonard added that there exists “a growing realization that environment, economy and community must be jointly addressed.
“Take recycling for example. There has been a big migration of dirty waste management companies from Europe to developing countries. They promote incinerators – which are extremely wasteful and polluting. These big machines take millions and millions of dollars to destroy resources. Even if they could be made safe, you could never make them sensible in a finite planet.
“From an economic perspective you might want to bring in a big foreign company to manage garbage collection. The best way though is to use the local community – who are experts anyway. This method also provides jobs and keeps money in the local economy.
Conference organizer Leila Iskander, who works with Cairo’s zabaleen – or garbage collectors – community, echoed this point.
In the early 2000s contracts were awarded to three multinational companies to collect and dispose of Cairo’s garbage – a job which for years had been carried out by Cairo’s zabaleen, who went from door to door collecting garbage, sorted and recycled it.
In addition to having a disastrous impact on the lives of the zabaleen, the multinational company experiment has largely failed, Iskander explained.
Of the 45,000 plastic garbage wheelie bins introduced by the multinationals, 39,000 were stolen, and not replaced. Many Cairenes, used to having their garbage picked up from outside their doors, never took to the idea of having to physically carry their rubbish to the wheelie bins.
As a result, rubbish accumulated in Cairo’s streets. Multinational companies in any case only recycle 20 percent of any garbage they do collect – as they are contracted to do – dumping the rest in landfill sites. Iskander compared this to the 85 percent zabaleen recycle of garbage they collect.
Stefano Marmorato, from the Slum/Shack Dwellers International network Community, emphasized that collection and recycling is a “tool of environmental, social and economic sustainability, especially if promoted via a process which legitimizes the participation of the poor, rather than just allowing them to scavenge.
Waste of a different kind was discussed by Hossam Allam, regional program director of the strategic concerns program at the Egypt-based Center for Environment and Development for the Arab Region (CEDARE).
Allam told the conference that more than 40 million tons of “e-waste – unwanted IT and telecommunications equipment – is produced globally each year.
Allam pointed to the way in which mobile use has soared in the developing world. “Developing countries are only 9.3 years behind Sweden in terms of mobile penetration, but 72 years behind it in infant mortality, Allam explained.
The flipside of the IT boom, Allam explained, is e-waste. Recycling e-waste produces precious materials like gold, silver, copper, glass and plastic; 1 ton of recycled mobiles can produce up to 230 grams of gold but only 0.001-0.003 percent of waste electronic equipment is recycled each year.
“Companies must have an obligation to take back their equipment, Allam said.
Mobinil’s Alex Shalaby told the conference that his company has launched a pilot training project on recycling mobile batteries – “probably the most hazardous component of mobile phones.
“We’d love to expand this and have every intention of doing so, Shalaby added.