We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Marco Bulgarelli/Gama-Rapho via Getty

Pick of the heap: Cairo's wasteland


Walking down Cairo’s streets, it’s common to find garbage piled up on every corner, regardless of the neighbourhood. The city spews out at least 17,000 tonnes of trash a day, according to its former Governor, Atef Abdelhamid.

Recovering economic value from garbage, as President Sisi recently exhorted his government to do, remains a challenge. Most is thrown out unsorted and proper waste management is wanting. The piles of rubbish get picked over by cats and dogs, and those digging out items of value – but much of it lies, malodourously, on the streets.

‘I cannot determine the cause, but I suggest the garbage mafia which controls the market interfered when they found out citizens can make money out of waste.’

In 2003, the Cairo authorities handed over dealing with garbage to three foreign transnationals – a move that failed miserably. They put up large collection bins in the street to take the rubbish straight to landfills; some official, others not.

The move also got the backs up of the tightly knit Zabaleen community, threatening their livelihoods. The Zabaleen (‘garbage people’ in Egyptian Arabic) had traditionally carved up waste collection around Cairo, drawing international attention for their impressive processing rates – managing to divert up to 85 per cent of all garbage from landfill.

Zabaleen run sorting and recycling workshops, where they wash, crush and pelletize plastic, preparing it for export to China. Other workshops melt aluminium waste and ship it to Turkey. As for organic waste, the Zabaleen, the majority of whom are Coptic Christians, use it to raise pigs for pork.

After the failure of the foreign companies the government tried to approach the Zabaleen with the offer of working under the legal umbrella of a national holding company, which they strongly rejected, used as they were to working as family businesses. The holding company model would have given them fixed salaries and obliged them to pay income tax. It would have also meant an end to children helping out with the sorting of the rubbish.

The Zabaleen is a word which literally means "garbage people" in Egyptian Arabic. The contemporary use of the word in Egyptian Arabic is to mean "garbage collectors". In cultural contexts, the word refers to teenagers and adults who have served as Cairo's informal garbage collectors since approximately the 1940s
Zabaleen way of life: Each kilo of carton or paper sells for two Egyptian pounds ($0.11), plastic four ($0.22) and cans 15 ($0.83). Photo: Reuters

Trash into cash

In March 2017, two parliamentarians launched Sort It, an initiative to encourage citizens to sort their waste at home and sell, for a small amount of money, recyclables like paper, tin cans and plastics to kiosks owned by young people.

‘The initiative was successful, youth were excited about the idea and created the kiosks,’ says Nadia Henry, one of the parliamentarians behind the campaign. ‘The executive branch helped them and facilitated their paperwork; additionally the citizens interacted with it and started selling their waste but suddenly everything came to a halt. I cannot determine the cause, but I suggest the garbage mafia which controls the market interfered when they found out citizens can make money out of waste.’

The mafia Henry refers to are the fat cats who have the garbage market in their grip and profit through raising the prices of waste sold to the recycling factories. The kiosks have taken their toll on the nature of the Zabaleen community’s work.

Henry is concerned that mixing different kinds of waste reduces its value, making it worthless for Egypt’s domestic recycling factories to buy.

‘Even if the holding company is not established, without sorting, the problem will persist,’ says Henry.

She also points out a conflict of interest over organic waste, which could be turned into fertilizer after composting: the fertilizer factories are located at a distance from the capital, which incurs expensive transportation. The Zabaleen simply feed it to their pigs.

‘The kiosks are killing us’

Nermeen Boles runs one of the kiosks that have thrived despite opposition from the Zabaleen. She calls it her ‘dream job’. ‘I spent all my savings to establish this kiosk, then rented a huge warehouse, along with 5 co-workers, who have now increased to 14,’ she says. ‘Currently, I am establishing a recycling company, after I had managed to make partnerships with residential compounds and large hotels to collect garbage from them regularly.’

Boles has had to extend the opening hours of her kiosk up to 10 at night. ‘At the beginning we exerted a lot of effort into spreading awareness among citizens about sorting,’ she says, effort that seems to have been rewarded.

At the kiosk, Boles buys each kilo of carton or paper for two Egyptian pounds ($0.11), plastic for four ($0.22) and cans for 15 ($0.83). The kiosks have taken their toll on the nature of the Zabaleen community’s work.

Eissa Habeel, who has spent more than 50 years collecting and sorting garbage, a job he inherited from his father and grandfather, was the first among his community to think of establishing a private company to collect, sort and ship recyclables. He is currently considering liquidating it.

‘The kiosks are killing us,’ he says. ‘The municipalities ally against us. Everyone is basically working against us Zabaleen.’ He thinks this has led to many resorting to digging through garbage for more valuable recyclables and leaving the rest, instead of collecting all of it.

Silver lining for the Zabaleen

Ezzat Naeem is more optimistic. He is the director of Rooh El-Shabab (‘youth spirit’), an association that aims to provide services for the Zabaleen community. He believes that despite the state-imposed hardships, Zabaleen youth have it in them to overcome.

Naeem was born in one of Cairo’s seven Zabaleen settlements and, despite the odds, managed to gain a bachelor’s degree in foreign trade. He harnessed his education to serve the community he grew up in. Naeem helped establish the first Zabaleen syndicate and was its leader for two years.

‘We currently have more than 120 companies launched by Zabaleen, working in collecting, shipping, sorting and recycling the garbage, and inside each company there are about 20 employees,’ he says.

Over the past four years Rooh El-Shabab has established a Montessori school for Zabaleen children, in addition to literacy classes for adults. He would like to see the work they do more formalized. ‘There are 3,500 workshops working in recycling illegally. They need to legalize, especially considering 35,000 workers are employed by them.’

The Zabaleen, who have community expertise in recovering value from waste, have faced many challenges in recent years. Can future efforts to solve Cairo’s garbage problem find a way of including them?

Hisham Allam is a Pulitzer award-winning member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and author of Panama Papers, the Untold Stories.

New Internationalist issue 516 magazine cover This article is from the October 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop