Without Pigs, Cairo Looks For Solar Garbage Fix

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Hear our original stories about environmental efforts in Egypt.

Early this summer, amid fears of the spread of swine flu, the Egyptian government ordered the slaughter of some 250,000 pigs in Cairo. The pigs used to eat much of the city's garbage. Now a non-profit organization called Solar Cities is looking to put all that extra organic waste to use—-by turning it into natural gas.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Cairo, Egypt, garbage has been piling up in the street after the government slaughtered some 250,000 pigs. They were killed earlier this summer because of fears of the spread of swine flu. Now, organic waste they once ate is creating a garbage crisis.

Many of those pigs belonged to a community called the Zabaleen, a group of mostly Coptic Christian garbage collectors. Some of you may remember the Zabaleen from a series we did in April of last year.

(Soundbite of traffic)

HANSEN: Most of the Zabaleen live on less than $2 a day and often go without basic resources like hot water. That's what attracted people like environmentalist T.H. Culhane to the community. When we met him, he told us about his organization, called Solar Cities, which builds solar water heaters for the Zabaleen community.

(Soundbite of children)

Mr. T.H. CULHANE (Founder, Solar Cities): One of the most gratifying moments in this project is when we finished our first solar hot water system here on the school, and the kids ran and got these Pert shampoo bottles. And they'd never used the shampoo that they recycle because it's just empty usually. But they scraped enough shampoo out, came under here and for the first time started taking shampooed showers, washing each other's hair, lathering each other's hair, and having a great time under the hot water.

HANSEN: We promised you an update on the Zabaleen and the Solar Cities project. And I'm joined in the studio now by my WEEKEND EDITION colleague Kimberly Adams. She recently traveled to Cairo and checked in on the project.

Welcome back from Cairo. And it's nice to see you on this side of the mike.

KIMBERLY ADAMS: Thank you very much. It's nice to be here.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit more about how the worldwide swine flu scare produced what seemed to be unintended consequences for the Zabaleen as well as the city of Cairo.

ADAMS: The bottom line is that the Egyptian government decided to combat swine flu by killing all the swine. Now, public health experts called that slaughter a misguided effort in that regard. But the first consequence for the Zabaleen was that it ended a source of livelihood for a lot of people.

Then there was a side effect for the people of Cairo that, oh, my goodness, there's nobody to come to my door and get my garbage because the Zabaleen reduced the amount of garbage they were collecting because they didn't have the pigs to give it to. And the other side effect for the Zabaleen is actually, debatably, a good one - that it doesn't smell as badly there.

(Soundbite of carts)

ADAMS: In the Zabaleen neighborhood of Manshiyet Nasser, donkey carts loaded with cardboard boxes and bags of garbage still squeeze through narrow alleyways. But one significant change in the community is the smell. The overwhelming stench of manure and rotting food is significantly diminished.

Mr. HANA FATHY (Solar Cities): Now, because there is no pig, there is not much garbage like before. People don't save the garbage or sort it like before. They clean it daily.

That's Hana Fathy, who works with Solar Cities. They've been installing solar water heaters in the Zabaleen community. Hana lives in the neighborhood and says the Zabaleen - now without their pigs - don't collect as much organic waste anymore. But Hana and his colleague, Omar Nagy, have found a new use for some of Cairo's trash. They want to turn rotting organic garbage into biogas, a type of natural gas made mostly of methane. Omar and Hana have built a biogas digester, as they call it, on Hana's roof, which is already a little bit crowded with the blue plastic tank and black panels of the solar water heater perched on an iron frame.

Mr. OMAR NAGY (Solar Cities): And the process is, first you get some animal manure and you leave it for a few weeks until you have bacteria formed, and then you feed it only with organic waste. And basically with this system, you can get biogas every day. And for a household of four people with their kitchen waste only, you can get biogas for about an hour or two hours a day, which can help you for cooking and heating.

ADAMS: Solar Cities recently received funding to build and install more biogas systems to make use of the garbage. But Nagy admits it's a tough sell. Egypt is a producer and exporter of natural gas and heavily subsidizes it for its citizens.

Mr. NAGY: So, gas is very cheap. So, this makes this system not economically feasible. However, if you put in consideration the emissions you get from gas and the greenhouse emissions and the environment effects, then this would be more feasible. Yeah.

ADAMS: This feasibility problem is the same one faced by Solar Cities' original project - building solar water heaters.

Again, here's Hana Fathy.

Mr. FATHY: The material has become cheaper, but the people doesn't have enough money to pay for all that - still expensive. Even if they are rich people, now they say, no, we can't buy it now.

ADAMS: It costs about 3,000 Egyptian pounds. That's about $550 to build and install one of the solar heaters, and about the same for a biogas unit. That's what the average Zabaleen makes in six months of garbage collecting or sorting.

HANSEN: That report was from NPR's Kimberly Adams. She's back in the studio. It was really nice to hear from Hana again. But one thing I don't know, what's the state of the funding for Solar Cities now?

ADAMS: Solar Cities is actually in line for quite a bit of new funding. The group's founder, T.H. Culhane, is part of a $50,000 grant from National Geographic and a private research institute to continue work on biogas digesters.

Now, it hasn't always been this good for Solar Cities. The U.S. aid money that you saw them using when you visited, that ran out about six or seven months ago. So times were a little bit tough for them. Hana was giving eco tours of the Zabaleen community to make some extra money. Now, we're happy to report that he's got a new job for an organic farm in Egypt as an eco energy expert. So, Solar Cities is doing pretty well.

HANSEN: WEEKEND EDITION's production assistant Kimberly Adams. She recently traveled to Cairo, Egypt, and checked on the Zabaleen community there. Thanks for the update, Kimberly.

ADAMS: You're welcome, Liane.

HANSEN: And you can find out more about the Solar Cities project, and listen to stories from our last visit to Cairo, on our blog NPR.org/soapbox.

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