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زبالة and روبابيكية – the Pollution Post


This trash dump from a potential construction site was my first real encounter with trash cultures similar to Egypt. This is in central rural Turkey from January.


I wish the surrounding air didn’t look like this picture from early October. Recent air quality has been worse – more tan/grey hint to the haze. My Egyptian friends call it “fog;” but this fog doesn’t dissipate with the day’s progression.


The last couple days have featured ridiculous air. I don’t mean interesting clouds, cleansing rain, intense lightening, searing heat, or even snow. (Sigh. I miss snow, like always.) I mean the air. I look out the windows of the apartment and realize that I can’t see the sea. I can’t see past the first row of buildings on the other side of the open area to the south of the apartments. What I do see is haze, brown or grey, hanging in midair. Then, I have to walk through that haze, which at street level begins to obscure buildings two blocks in front of me, to nab a taxi or tram to university. I have pet theories of why there’s a ton more haze the last couple days, but those theories aren’t based on anything scientific, so I’ll save you from them.

I’ve hinted for the last three months in various posts that Alexandria has a pollution problem. Yes, that’s a relative statement: compared to Beijing air, Alex is clean. Compared to Siwa or my family farm, though, Alex streets are a landfill. (I think Cairo’s streets and air are worse.) So, this is my official pollution post. I’m interested in raising awareness not than gag reactions, so please bear with me.

I’ll start with the streets. Egyptians seriously think nothing of throwing stuff on the ground like the ground is a giant trash bin on which we live. I’ve watched innumerable children rip open packages and throw the plastic packaging on the ground, people of all ages finish a juice box and pitch it out of transportation (both tram and cars), cigarettes get tossed everywhere, and young men fishing toss their fishing poles into the very body of water in which they just caught fish. President Morsi at one point promised (in the spirit of all idealist political promises) to clean up cities’ streets in 100 days. He’d have to change culture in 100 days, which of course didn’t happen. The result is a kind of obstacle course – sidewalks are often full of garbage, tree clippings, or are super uneven, so people walk in the streets, which aren’t the smoothest.

Trash tends to gather in certain areas, such as along the tram rails or in street “gutters”. I’m not sure who’s in charge of cleaning up the tram rails, but the preferred method of cleaning up the litter is burning it. Yes, burning it. The majority of the trash is packaging from junk food (chips, chocolate), juice boxes or water bottles, cigarettes, and plastic bags of various kinds. Invariably the smoke from such burning sites is black, and later black smudges coat various spots along the tram rails where previous burns happened.



I snapped this picture in late September walking along the tramline. The trash fire was a common sight there, and these fires are subsequently killing this tree.


On streets, the situation is slightly different. Every so often dumpsters (small in comparison with US dumpsters, but the largest trash collection receptacle in Egypt) appear along streets. Almost always these dumpsters are filled and overflowing to the street around it. There is a “class” (I use that word cautiously, but there’s a definite sector of the population who do this) of men who dig through the dumpsters for materials that they can sell to factories or someone for a pittance. These “zibela” men make their tiny living by digging through the trash, collecting it on horse-pulled carts, and competing with each other, the official city garbage men, and the “robabikia” men for remarketable products. (I saw my first city garbage truck this morning with Brannon en route to school.) Robabikia men have donkey or horse-pulled carts, and drive through residential areas screaming a version of “robabikia” at the top of their lungs; they’re looking for broken but generally usable furniture to resell. Of course, all these men do still leave trash on the streets and in dumpsters. There is a small army of men employed by (hopefully) a government to hand sweep the streets’ dust, sand, and trash into hand-pulled trash cans; these get emptied into larger dumpsters. These trashmen are distinguishable from the zibela men by their dingy though bright orange pants and grey shirts that have the recycling emblem encircling a pair of stylized hands holding a world. Even with robabikia, zibela, and trashmen, trash accumulates everywhere.

The culture of dropping trash extends past the streets and into the sea. Brannon at one point attempted to swim in the Eastern Harbor but desisted after he saw the petrochemicals covering the water’s surface and noticed he had to fight trash to get to open water. Even at our usual swimming spot at Stanley Beach, trash mixes with the beach’s sand, water jugs rest on the sea’s bottom, and trash floats through the water. I’ve seen people walking across Stanley Bridge think nothing of dropping a water bottle into the water. Stanley’s one of the oldest beaches in the city, which makes me assume that some care goes into keeping it customer-friendly. Honestly, it’s kind of disgusting walking and swimming through trash, and Stanley doesn’t have an obvious problem with petrochemicals.



Views of the Eastern Harbor.


When we were on our cruise from Aswan to Luxor, streams of oil emanated from our cruise ship as well as from the others idling at their docks. Clouds of smoke from the combustion engines also unfurled their tendrils into the air behind each ship. The ships docked such that each bow was closely behind another’s engine – diesel smoke coated each ship bow with a soot black covering. The Nile is straight up disgusting, at least between Aswan and Luxor. The water is not only slightly stagnant; it was filled with algae and other things to make it opaque. Between our ship and its dock in Aswan, discarded food lay at the bottom of the Nile.  Along our route, trash periodically littered the water. Farther down the Nile, in Cairo, people fish from the river and sell the fish as fresh and healthy in restaurants. Before coming to Egypt, I read up on the Nile – the CDC among other agencies recommend not swimming in the river, as there’s some disease contractible simply by contact with skin. Such fish as caught from the river are therefore not my choice.


View of ships at dock. Look closely, and you can see the contaminated water exiting the engines close to the water level.


Image from our felucca ride around Elephantini Island, Aswan.


This plastic bag washed up along the shore in Aina Sokhna, at the otherwise clearer Red Sea.


Cities are not normally my preferred location, partially for reasons of increased pollution, so the trash level in Alexandria has been something to which I have had to adjust. Periodically over the last three months I’ve noticed the air quality inexplicably degrading for a couple days at a time, but those times are accompanied by an unmistakable trash-burning smell that I now recognize immediately. Since coming back from this past weekend at Siwa (I went again), there’s been a thick layer of smog covering the city with no particular smell. I blame this new degraded air for the sore throat I’ve developed the last couple days, but also Ben’s sick, so I may just have a small cold from him. Christmas at home will be a welcome break from the pollution of big cities.


Open space to the south of our balcony, with a typical amount of trash.

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