Egyptian Recyclers Keep Old Technology Alive

In advanced countries, someone whose cell phone breaks down or becomes outdated usually tosses it and gets a new, fancier model.

Ditto for the DVD player, Sony PlayStation, and even radios and watches.

Not so in the developing world. Here in Cairo, whole side streets and alleys are packed with electronics repairmen laboriously fixing circuits, keypads and compact disc lenses — charging around $5 for a standard repair.

As recycling has become the craze across the West, Egyptians have continued to reuse almost everything, recycling not as a fad but as a necessity.

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Tiny repair shops are not unique to Cairo — they are a way of life for cities in Africa, Asia and elsewhere where people cannot afford to buy a new electronics device every time something breaks down.

But even Egypt is slowly transforming into a disposable goods society as cheap electronics arrive from China, causing some Cairo repairmen to fear their generations-old shops — and the informal recycling industry they support — won't be around forever.

"The next generation won't take over because China is flooding the market with cheap stuff," said repairman Osama Farouk. "They will buy new instead of getting it repaired, even if it is poor quality."

El-Attar Street in downtown Cairo, where Farouk works, is probably the most famous repair area in this sprawling city of nearly 20 million people.

The two-block street is crammed with workers fixing almost everything — from blenders to boom boxes, cell phones, video game players, and even antique phones and radios.

Stereos blast Arabic pop music, and scooters swerve past the repairmen whose shops consist of a chair, tools, spare parts and sometimes a small wooden or glass stand set along the street.

Farouk works in front of a wall full of used circuit boards at the north entrance of El-Attar. The 35-year-old, second-generation repairman prefers Japanese brands and charges about $9 for the typical DVD lens repair. The quality of his work keeps customers coming back, he says.

On Fridays he heads to the nearby Souk el-Gomaa, a haven for small electronic parts and stolen goods. Often, the repairmen buy not just parts but the entire product — only to disassemble it for its components.

"We buy everything old. So if you have a cassette player you don't want, you can bring it here and we'll buy it," Farouk said.

Farther down El-Attar Street, Hassan el-Turki sits in front of shelves packed with various telephones, from current office sets to old rotary phones — even a 1920s Ericsson black model.

"I love the old phones. The new ones are not as well made and won't be working 80 years from now," the second-generation repairman said.

But when asked if they feel they are helping Egypt's environment by reusing electronic parts, Farouk and the other repairmen seem confused by the question. For them, their business is all about money — not cutting back on landfill waste.

Salah el Haggar, a mechanical engineer at the American University in Cairo, said poverty drives the developing world's repair industry. In Egypt, for example, more than 20 percent of the country's 76.5 million people live under the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

"Egypt is one of the best recyclers in the world because of the need," el Haggar said.

But he complained the repair work is uneven because it's not regulated by any government body.

Still, El-Attar Street's reputation is such that Tarek Galal, on vacation in Egypt from Toronto, immediately headed here when his cell phone stopped ringing.

"Everybody in Egypt knows about this street," Galal said. "The labor is too expensive in Canada, but here it is cheaper."