Each autumn, Egyptians take a deep breath and brace for the black cloud, a thick layer of smog from burning rice straw that spreads across Cairo and the Nile valley for several weeks.
Burning agricultural waste, mostly rice straw, turns the capital s already noxious air into an even more toxic mix. Farmers produce about 30 million tonnes of what they consider waste each year, and burning it generates 42 per cent of autumnal air pollution, say environmentalists.
Rice straw can be converted into pulp for paper, fertilizer, active carbon or natural-fibre plastic composites and experts say farmers could be earning $50 per tonne for their waste. But developing cost-effective technologies for those processes isn t easy.
Several pilot projects are underway, but the main alternative market right now is the Egyptian government, which buys rice straw from some farms for $7 a tonne. However, the total cost for making a tonne of fertilizer from rice straw is about $50 and it sells for only half that amount.
Industries can t be built on subsidies because if you remove the subsidy, the industry will collapse, said Amr Helal of the Egyptian Chamber of Industry and Engineering.
In one project funded by the European Union, Helal and his research partners have studied turning rice straw into active carbon and natural-fibre plastic composites, which have a range of potentially profitable industrial uses.
Creating an industry
Active carbon is used in waste water management, sugar refining and paint industries. Naturalfibre plastic composites are used to make furniture, marine decking and consumer goods.
The total active carbon market in Egypt may be in the range of 5,000 to 10,000 tonnes and there is not one single factory in the Middle East producing this material, Helal said.
One tonne of active carbon imported from China sells for around $1,500. One tonne of rice straw can be used to produce around half a tonne of active carbon.
It is very good money we are talking about, Helal said.
Pulp production also has considerable promise and could create thousands of badly needed jobs, but delivering these projects with the economy in turmoil is no easy task. The overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak scared off investors and the country s new military rulers are focused on pressing problems such as a wave of strikes and managing the shift to civilian rule.
Smoke rises from burning garbage in downtown Cairo October 20, 2011. Environmentalists blame the burning of agricultural waste, mostly rice straw, for the pall of smoke that turns Cairo s already poor-quality air into an even more toxic mix.R euters/AmrAbdallahDalsh