Solid waste management in Tunisia
For Tunisia, a country in the Maghreb region of North Africa and bordering the Mediterranean sea, solid waste management seems to be a big challenge. Tunisia has around 11 million inhabitants and produces more than 2.5 million tons of garbage per year . From 2004 to 2014, the amount of municipal solid waste in kg/person/day increased from 183 to 292 .
Across the country, about 400 private companies are authorized by the Ministry of Environment to collect, transport and recycle plastic . This development is partly the result of institutional efforts to tackle waste more efficiently in light of the threat it presents to the country’s tourism sector. Tunisia enacted the National Program for Solid Waste Management (PRONADGES) in the 1990s and established the National Agency for Waste Management (ANGed) in 2005 . But the existence of these companies and legislations did not guarantee a waste-clean country, especially in the post-revolution period.
“After the departure of Ben Ali, everyone remembers that on January 15, the streets were flooded with filth. The Inkhila landfill in Nabeul has been closed for more than ten months, the Monastir landfill site for four months, and the Jradou landfill has been in existence since July 2011. Waste collection worked in a very fragile way between private operators, casual workers and municipalities that also subcontracted certain services” said Morched Garbouj  of SOS-BIAA, a Tunis-based association of engineers, lawyers and doctors that worked in the environmental sector .
Apart from that, Tunisia’s formal waste collection and cleaning service underwent a series of disruptions due to strikes in which formal waste workers demanded better conditions and wages [2,6]. An official of the municipality of Marsa expresses:
“It was a system that already had problems at the time of the dictatorship (of Ben Ali), only that at the time no one dared to go on strike ” (parentheses added) 
When strikes occur, piles of trash start appearing across the cities and citizens point fingers at the “greedy” municipality workers . Tunisia’s waste management deteriorated as it had to deal with the post-2011 revolution situation. Up until 2018 municipal-level elections had been put to a stop and city halls were run by special delegations that had been nominated after the fall of Ben Ali’s regime. These delegations struggled with the city-level management of waste . For example, the Ariana municipality was facing a serious lack of resources and equipment after it had been burned down during the revolution. Lotfi Dacharaoui, the director of health services in the Ariana municipality adds that the bigger problem in 2014 was a lack of qualified personnel and the bureaucratic delay related to those bidding for new equipment .
The struggle for post-revolution order resulted in the deterioration of cities in terms of health and environmental standards; garbage remains uncollected, illegal dumping sites are used and mafia structures increasingly inhibit society precisely where municipal waste management falls short .
The bottom of the aforementioned structures is the domain of the informal waste collectors and particularly in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, wastepickers grapple to make a living while non-profit organizations either assist or hinder them.
The Barbechas (Wastepickers) of Tunis
Sources estimate that there are between 8000-15,000 wastepickers in Tunisia of which around 800 live in the Ettadhamon district of the capital Tunis [7,8]. According to the international NGO “International Alert” two-thirds of all waste recycling is done by self-organized wastepickers but their profession remains unrecognized . Wastepickers in Tunis travel kilometers in order to collect about 10kg in winter and 50kg in summer. They do so by foot, motorbike, on the back of a man or with a wheelbarrow .
Consequently, Barbechas (Tunisian name for wastepickers) have poor working conditions, no worker’s rights and no access to health or social coverage. Particularly women Barbechas are the most vulnerable, Zohra El-Jlassi expresses:
"I see a man climbing the fences of the market in the morning to collect empty bottles. I'm a woman; I can't do the same. Sometimes the wagon is too heavy for me to lift, so I get help from a man. I always find help. Nothing is too heavy for a man. I cross people in the street and they tell me: 'You are a brave woman', and they greet and honor me. I answer them: 'Alhamdulillah' (praise be to Allah).” .
Usually, the Barbechas sell their waste to middlemen recyclers who then sell it for a marked-up price to either the national waste collection system or, more often, a private recycling factory . Barbechas are often stigmatized because they slice open garbage bags in search of plastic or glass for the purpose of recycling and earning an income. This, in conjunction with the fact that street sweepers are often striking and hence refuse to clean up after Barbechas, makes Tunisian wastepickers the main scapegoat of the popular discontent for the proliferation of illegal dumps and street conditions .
NGO’s and their attempts at filling the gaps in Tunis’ formal waste-management system
Tunisia’s waste management is also characterized by the efforts of NGO’s concerning the overall improvement of waste management in the capital. One example is Tunisie Recyclage, a small NGO that has started recycling garbage in Tunis. It was set up after the 2011 revolution, by a small group of people in La Marsa, a northern suburb of Tunis. Since 2012 around 1205 households have registered with the NGO which translates to the fact that each household pays around $18 per year for Tunisie Recyclage to pick up garbage bags once per week .
In 2018, Tunisie Recyclage used their income to buy school supplies for students in the low-income area of Tunis. Houssem Hamdi, the NGO’s president mentions:
“Starting this past August, we decided to launch a special pilot project. We started by gathering rubbish around the cities of Tabard and Gammarth … We invited people to follow us on Facebook and to follow our lead by starting to sort their rubbish at home. In just one month, we had collected eight tonnes of recyclable plastic and 13 tonnes of glass. We sold the plastic to an entrepreneur in our area [La Soukra, a northern suburb of Tunis] and the glass to a business called Sotuver. We earned close to 5,000 dinars [around 1,500 euros]. We reinvested this money in the community by buying 145 backpacks, each filled with school supplies.” .
The employees in Tunisie Recyclage’s sorting center are all volunteers and this constrains the amount of waste they are able to handle. Thomas, a volunteer expresses: “I wish we could buy another van and employ more people. Our dream is to eventually offer this service to the whole country.”.
Thomas also states that even if they sell their waste, they don’t make any profit in the process of collecting household fees and reselling. He also mentions that he is aware of the fact that some households prefer to give their recyclable material to the Barbechas and that Tunisie Recyclage prefers not to be a competitor of the Barbechas. But, he adds that Barbechas open bags and throw bins upside down, spreading litter across the streets . It’s not an overstatement to say that there is at least some ambiguity when it comes to the relationship between Tunisie Recyclage and the Barbechas in Tunis.
Another active NGO in Tunis is “The Environmental Protection and Recycling Association (EPRA)” supported by the British NGO called “International Alert”. It is particularly active in the Ettadhamon district and aims to help the Barbechas by increasing the recognition of their profession, improving their working conditions and ensuring health and social coverage .
"Some (Barbechas) are over 60 years old and some are under 60. Most of them don't enjoy any health or social coverage. Some are working to provide sustenance for a disabled member of the family. Some are obliged to do it.” expresses Fethi El-Chaaibi, a member of EPRA .
EPRA was founded in 2014 and launched its recycling project in November 2018 and by 2019, the association has about 70 Barbechas as members. When interviewed in August 2019 by Layla Faroudi, EPRA’s president Mohamed Fakraoui mentioned that they aim to recruit 120 more Barbechas to the collective .
One of the ways EPRA helps its members economically is by paying a higher rate per kilogram of plastic compared to other companies or the mafia. On average each of the Berbecha members bring 15-20 kilo’s of plastic per day and this amounts to a payment of approximately 4-5.50 euro per day. Approximately 4 Barbechas are also employed at the sorting facility itself, they receive a gross salary of 180 euro per month and are covered by social security . Unfortunately the Barbechas who only sell their waste to EPRA are not covered by social security, but it is the ultimate aim of the association. For now, EPRA provides free anti-tetanus vaccinations to the members not employed at the sorting unit and is building the conditions for the Barbechas to receive a type of official payroll which can hopefully pave access to health insurance [17,10].
Mehdi Barhoumi, the Tunis-based programs manager of International Alert mentions that because there is no legal framework that regulates the type of recycling Barbechas do, he hopes that the Tunisian parliament accepts a law proposal concerning the establishment of a “social and solidarity economy (SSE)”. This would support collectives and business co-ops that make a profit but also fulfill a social objective .
The SSE was proposed by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) in 2015 and believes that it offers a radical solution to the economic and social development problems in Tunisia. By striking a balance between the requirements of economic efficiency and social solidarity the SSE proposal hopes to promote employment, provide decent work, integrate the informal economy in the formal circuit, preserve natural wealth and improve the quality of life while protecting and strengthening the public sector.
Government-led attempts at waste management solutions
On a national scale, Tunisian authorities have certainly expressed their willingness to improve Tunisia’s waste management system.
In 1997, the Eco-Lef system was established by decree number 1102, as a way to structure and operate the value chain for plastic packaging in Tunisia . Eco-Lef is managed by ANGed who contracts private firms and finances the system through an Environmental Protection Tax levied on the sale price of products - not the cost of collection and treatment of packaging waste [9, 25]. In 2014, about 320 Eco-Lef collection points existed which allowed approximately 16,000 tons of plastic package wage to be recollected. Depending on the type of plastic, 70% to 90% of the collected plastic waste has been recycled . However, the establishment and furtherance of the Eco-Lef system has systematically excluded the informal recycling sector and fails to attend to the Berbecha’s lack of social recognition and health, safety and working conditions . As mentioned earlier, Barbechas are not allowed to sell their materials directly to ANGed, they must first pass an illegal or legal middleman .
As of March 2017, single-use plastics have been banned in supermarkets, making Tunisia one of the first Arab nations to take such a step . But the ambiguity on the part of the government, its branches and private contractors with respect to the Barbechas is clear even when it has received the support of GIZ (German Association for International Cooperation) for a promising pilot project which took place from January 2015 to June 2015. The project was called “Structural Integration of the Informal Sector into the Municipal Solid Waste Management in Tunisia”. The partners/supporters involved in this pilot project were SWEEP-Net ( Solid Waste Exchange of Information and Expertise Network in the Middle East and North Africa [MENA] Region), the International Labour Organization, the municipalities of Ettadhamon-Mnihla and La Marsa and National Waste Management Agency [22,28]. Prior to its initiation, informal meetings were held with Barbechas in order to introduce them to the project. Apart from that, formal meetings were held with key stakeholders such as the former secretary of state for sustainable development, the ministries of health, social affairs, employment, and vocational training, interior affairs etc.
The outcome of the pilot project can be summarized as follows:
1. Long-term awareness-raising and engagement with citizens users is necessary for source separation and integration.
2. Door-to-door collection of dry recyclables by informal sector workers is a successful model.
3. Institutional support from the municipality through the provision of storage place, equipment, and access to health care, or payment for the service, would likely improve results.
4. Giving out uniforms and identification badges that make Barbechas recognizable is essential to obtain a better (self-)perception of the Barbechas .
Unfortunately, in 2019 this SWEEP-Net’s website is down and no information on continuation efforts could be found online. While the GIZ website contains an elaborate page on all its programs in Tunisia, we have not been able to find anything regarding waste management .
However, it was found that a public-private partnership consisting of 1) ANGed, 2) German Retech, a Recycling and Waste Management consortium, including 3) Cyclos a waste management consulting company, 4) Enviro, an academic spin-off and 5) GIZ set up a project which aims to optimize extended producer responsibility (EPR) and realize a "Circular Economy" in Tunisia . This new project is taking place from November 1st 2017 to April 30th 2020 and although the project details mention that the improvement of Tunisia’s waste management requires the participation of all relevant stakeholders, not a line is spared to mention the informal recycling sector specifically.
In the end, GIZ’ 2015 project seemed promising and there still seems to be a vague interest in Barbechas from the national authorities’ side. In 2019, Bassradine Lassar, the director of the government’s National Waste Management Agency (ANGed) expressed that since Barbechas play a unquestionable role in the country’s waste collection system, it is better to find a solution and integrate them in the formal system. At the same time, Mohktar Hammami, the minister of Local Affairs and Environment expressed that Barbechas are not the state’s responsibility, since they work for the private sector .
All in all, it seems as if the pilot project in cooperation with national authorities has only brought short-term solutions to the table while NGO’s are currently left in charge of defending the rights of Barbechas. A fight which is, perhaps, easier to win if the proposal for the social and solidarity economy led by the Tunisian General Labour Union passes.