09 Oct 2018
Cairo, Egypt
Resource efficiency and sustainable waste management

Recycolife, a Cairo-based waste management startup, is propelling Egypt forward from an unlikely base — the country’s trash piles. Mina Bahr, Recycolife’s founder and owner, converts solid waste like plastic and aluminium into high-quality raw materials for local factories. The company has also entered the developing field of biofuels, salvaging used cooking oil for reuse as biodiesel car fuel.

Founded in 2015, Recycolife now has several clients and has started making money. But recycling is far from straightforward in Egypt, where the industry is hampered by infighting and overregulation. Bahr hopes that Recycolife can help ease this situation by encouraging a more collaborative approach to Egyptian sustainability.

Egyptians love to cook. Now the oil leftover by Egypt’s culinary masters can help satisfy an ever-increasing demand for energy, thanks to companies like Recycolife. Bahr converts used cooking oil — along with solid wastes like aluminium, plastics and paper — into high-quality raw materials for local factories. “We believe this is a very important industry in Egypt,” says Bahr.

Egypt wants to make its national energy outlook more sustainable. In recent years, the north African country has relied on fossil fuels to meet up to 95 percent of the energy demanded by its exploding population. The government has invested in wind, solar and hydroelectric plants, and now biofuels may have an important role to play. Cooking oil can be turned into biodiesels, which are capable of fueling motor vehicles. There has been criticism of harvesting crops specifically for producing biofuels, but Recycolife reuses cooking oil that has already been discarded.

Recycolife’s future looks rosy. The business has started turning profits, with a view to investing in can-crushing machinery to make its processes even more efficient. According to Bahr, further growth is limited by the fragmentation of Egypt’s recycling scene, hobbled by unclear government regulations and fighting between waste management companies and informal trash pickers. Undeterred, Recycolife is looking into new avenues for getting Egypt’s recyclers to work together at last.

Sustaining momentum

The dream of making Egypt more sustainable has not strayed far from Bahr’s mind since he was an engineering student a decade ago. “Recycling is my inspiration,” he says. After university, Bahr set about teaching himself more about the practicalities of recycling solid waste, along with the science of making biodiesel.

Bahr received a further boost of confidence from the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, during which recycling startups began exploding onto the local scene. He made his own contribution four years later, Recycolife, which gathers paper cartons, aluminium, cooking oil and four different types of plastic from households, schools and restaurants. These processes operate either under formal agreements with an organization, or simply by announcing that Recycolife will hold a public collection on a given day.

With the solid waste gathered, Bahr and his team wash it and then “act like a supplier of raw materials” for industry. Separately, Recycolife treats salvaged cooking oil before turning it over to a local facility that handles the conversion to biodiesel.

Three years in, the business is performing impressively. Recycolife generates decent profits, while Bahr enthuses that these will grow with more investment. For instance, Recycolife would be able to produce higher volumes of raw aluminium if it could purchase an on-site can-crushing machine. “We are always looking for innovation and new ways to help our clients,” he says, adding that Recycolife is also looking to handle more challenging materials like textiles, Tetra Paks and motor engine lubricants.

Better together

According to Bahr, businesses like Recycolife would have even greater cause for optimism in a less disjointed recycling scene. He says that Egypt generates thousands of tonnes in lucrative solid waste, but companies struggle to obtain certification for their raw materials from local authorities. This means that exporters send their products to foreign markets like Europe, even though they could be extremely useful at home.

Even more concerning is the toxic rivalry that has arisen between recycling companies and local trash pickers — individual citizens who comb rubbish dumps around Egypt for valuable objects. “[The trash pickers] used to get people’s waste for free, but now we pay for it,” says Bahr. “They act as if free waste is their right.”

For these reasons, Bahr is working on an initiative called Recycling Networking, which he hopes will foster greater coordination between stakeholders in the industry. He wants to ensure that industrial companies and raw material suppliers like Recycolife better understand each other’s businesses, with a view to developing lasting partnerships. Recycolife also runs public awareness campaigns about the importance of recycling.

For Bahr, spreading this message is especially vital in Egypt, where resources look like becoming only more scarce moving forward. “We face a decreasing amount of fossil fuels and an increasing amount of demand,” he says. “We need to make the most of all these materials.”

 

Learn more about Recycolife through its website and Facebook.

Photos courtesy of Recycolife and Unsplash

Since getting his MA in Middle Eastern Studies last year, David has worked as a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana, and Cairo, Egypt.David Wood
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Recycolife Resource efficiency and sustainable waste management
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