Cairo — Hanna Fathy, 28, enthusiastically pushes food scraps into his kitchen drain. When he looks at the pink paste that gathers in a bucket under his sink, he doesn’t see trash, he sees a source of renewable power.
He carries the slop to the roof of his home in a slum east of the city, and pours it into an old storage barrel.
“We can use the same organic waste that we’ve already paid money for when we bought it as food, to make energy and save the environment from using fossil fuels,” Fathy said.
He’s made the barrel into a biodigester, where bacteria from cow manure feed on food scraps and produce biogas. He pipes the gas down to his kitchen and uses it to cook with.
“That’s my philosophy: to create and use whatever you have to help yourself to be sustainable,” Fathy said.
It’s a philosophy he puts into practice daily. Hanna is one of Egypt’s zabaleen, or garbage collectors. Most of Cairo’s waste ends up in his neighborhood, the Manshiet Nasr district.
Here mountains of trash line balconies, rooftops, and even inside homes. The zabaleen sift through the debris, looking for hidden treasures to recycle.
Fathy has collected old toy motors, which contain copper wire that can be sold for around $2. But he uses the wire to build a solar panel.
He’s installed one of his homemade panels on the roof of his building.
“With this system it’s more safe, and it’s from the sun,” Fathy said. “You pay nothing, it’s clean, you will never pollute the environment when you use it.”
He lives as sustainably as possible. One floor below, he’s composting dried leaves to make garden soil. Even his radio is solar-powered.
Sustainable energy, Fathy said, is the first step to giving his young son a healthier life.
But going green in Egypt’s sprawling capital is no simple task. Cairo is one of the most polluted cities in the Middle East. And following the recent uprising, the government is more focused on building a new nation - not cleaning the existing one.
“People don’t think about the environment,” Fathy said. “Most people think about how they can make money. It doesn’t matter if they protect or if they pollute the environment, it doesn’t matter. No awareness at all.”
But Fathy is trying to change that.
Using technical skills he learned from an American organization called Solar Cities, he’s teaching his neighbors about sustainable living.
Already, he’s built 30 solar panels and biogas units.
“It’s easy for Cairo people to be environmentalists because we have a lot of garbage everywhere,” Fathy said. “So if people start to use their own garbage to make compost or methane gas, they will clean their streets, homes, and also have green plants in their space, clean and healthy food for themselves and their kids, and grow whatever they want.”