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!


Mr. Kurtz said...

I suspect part of the problem is that the Egyptian people are completely inexperienced in political organization because of the old government's oppression. Under more normal circumstances, without an elected official to complain to, someone would organize a garbage brigade from the people who cared about the mess. If there were free riders, so what? (cf the classic example of lighthouse builders on the East Coast). The slums outside Lima, where Herman deSoto did some early work, have a surprisingly robust organic form of government, which at least provides some basic needs, like water.
Here is another guess about Egypt: many people from a nomadic background (most of the people in Cairo) may not care about garbage, because nomads always move on. Native villages in Alaska, for instance, are appalling. Junk piles up everywhere.
BTW,this political feebleness, not a sudden burst of religious enthusiasm, is probably the reason for the Islamic Brotherhood's success; they were allowed to organize, mildly, and therefore have had a jump on the others.

Belinda Smith said...

A lot of these countries do not have the infrastructure for an actual trash/garbage collection system. There is no 'local dump' or place for people to take trash. At least in India, they pile it up in a central place.
So question: does Egypt have garbage collection weekly? Monthly?
Looks like an awesome trip!

David and Janet Carle said...

We visited Nepal recently and were appalled by the litter in Kathmandu and elsewhere, especially when the available "dump" sites became the rivers. Even on trails, the porters were inclined to drop wrappers from energy bars and other trash. Our local guide said that before the nation's recent revolution, things were better, but the ethic seems lacking. Recycling and trash pickup are basics of civic management that Nepal is not addressing.
As a park ranger, litter pickup was a constant task, because if litter is present, others seem to take that as an OK to litter more.

Andrew said...

I've been to India and witnessed a similar, incredible accumulation of garbage... everywhere, even in swanky new areas of Mumbai.

In Cairo though, I thought that the Christian Zabbaleen were the city's designated garbage-pickers.

David Zetland said...

@Kurtz -- The nomad factor is not so important (remember that MOST Egyptians have been settled farmers for 1000+ yrs). That said, their habit of throwing garbage on the street has only become an eyesore in the age of plastic, e.g., move from clay to plastic coffee cups in India.

The political organization problem is huge -- and they are somewhere between "we're not allowed to do it" and "the new saviors will do it."

@Belinda -- they have lots of trucks (watch the video, it came by twice) -- the problem is getting it off the ground.

@Carles -- see clay cup comment above. Also note that some people see "waste" as a form of conspicuous consumption!

@Andrew -- Zabbeeleen means "dump" and I visited one of their areas that was MOSTLY about recycling (start here). AFAIK, they do not have a monopoly (that would explain it). There's quite some heterogeneity on cleanliness around the city...

Eric Crawford said...

David, when living in the Netherlands, as a newly-moved American, I naively told someone to pick up his discarded cigarette, to which he replied, "No, this makes a job for someone." Though, I could never come to litter myself in order to build a better society...!

BTW - I loved the diving sequence.

David Zetland said...

@Eric -- someone told me that story last week, but it was a French job :)

NH said...


NH said...

Egypt after Feb. 18, 2011


kindly wish us lots of luck

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