11 Jan 2012

Garbage in Egypt

January 13 is World Cleanup 2012! Read this overview of similar voluntary clean-up efforts.

No owner, no respect...
There's a lot of garbage on Egyptian streets -- a classic example of a "negative externality" imposed by people who drop trash in "open access" areas shared by everyone. (I saw many guys just casually drop trash just a short distance from a nearby rubbish bin.)

There is not a lot of trash inside houses, where owners would be spoiling their own areas and outsiders cannot get access without permission.

Litter, in other words, results from two conditions:
  1. Someone does not care about the impact of his actions on others. In other words, he has neither social preferences regarding the welfare of others nor an intrinsic desire to do the right thing.
  2. Others do not have an incentive to stop that person from littering a common area. They suffer from a problem of collective action: it only takes one person to prevent littering or clean up litter that affects everyone, so everyone waits for that one person to show up. When no individual takes on the cost of cleaning up, everyone suffers the eyesore (and other adverse impacts).*
Note that BOTH of these criteria are necessary and sufficient for a garbage problem to persist. People who care about cleanliness will not litter; litterers will not be able to inflict damage on others if they try to spoil an area of private property, where the owner receives BOTH the costs and benefits of cleaning.

Since condition #2 occurs everywhere in the planet, we can therefore trace the littering problem to condition #1 -- too many people who do not care.**

My initial reaction was to complain about the problem to Egyptians. A few said that the post-revolutionary government would take care of it, but that isn't very likely (littering has survived many governments). The real problem is a lack of "clean awareness" among Egyptians, but how can we counter that?

Education, of course, so I decided to do a little "teaching by doing..."

I spent a few hours cleaning up a beach with an Aussi guy Tristan. Here's a video about that effort. (NB: It's 16 min, but there's 8-9 min of underwater video that you can skip if you want to hear all the talking -- including the interview I did with an Egyptian guy who collects garbage underwater.)

Bottom Line: The first step after identifying a problem is to get to work on addressing it. Others are more likely to follow the bold ones who take the lead.***

* The garbage problem can also be blamed on a lack of deposits on plastic bottles and (I think) a government-awarded monopoly on garbage collection in cities. (There are certainly enough un- and under-employed people around to clean the place up!). Besides being an eyesore, rubbish everywhere contributed to overflowing sewer and storm drains that made streets treacherous after any rain. Plastic is the biggest culprit of litter (even "biodegradable" plastic), and my local market -- Albert Heijn, the market-leader in the Netherlands -- no longer gives away plastic bags. People either bring their own or pay 20 cents for a heavy-duty one.

** In response to another version of these thoughts, NH wrote:
Regarding the garbage every where in Egypt.. did you know that after Feb. 11, 2011 (the date on which Mr. Mubarek left authority), Egyptians started cleaning and painting walls and the sidewalks in every place in Egypt starting from Al Tahrir to every narrow street. All of us were very enthusiastic to get Egypt back to its real nature as a center of human civilization..
*** Tristan actually mentioned "it's the first follower who transforms a nut into a leader" when he joined me -- a video I had posted here the week before!