In the towering piles of Cairo’s waste, Zabaleen residents have become desensitized from what are, to the uninitiated, nauseating smells and sights. Here in Manshiyet Nasser district, just eight kilometers from downtown Cairo, 60,000 Zabaleen garbage workers process some 30 percent of Greater Cairo’s daily municipal waste output—over 125,000 tons a year.
Bekhit Mettry is a second-generation resident of what is known as Garbage City. He explains that originally, Coptic Christians from Upper Egypt came to Cairo in the 1950s in search of a better life. For these mostly illiterate people, finding a job was difficult. they soon—albeit begrudgingly—embraced the one sector routinely suggested: waste management. The stigma attached to the job meant their community was able to take full advantage of the opportunity and carve out a thriving enterprise. decades later, their grandsons and granddaughters continue this work in a community that now has its own school, church, shops, and clinics.
The makeshift houses of corrugated iron and wood were built with the fear of forceful eviction at a moment’s notice. As confidence in their property rights grew over time, ad hoc brick housing units emerged, planned for a unique mix of residency, transportation, sorting, and processing of waste. Ground floors overflow with the storage of non-organic waste. Small areas on the perimeter of the dense housing are freed for organic waste, which is either composted and sold or given as feed to their cattle.
The Zabaleen have built up long-standing relationships with housing areas and companies and intimately know where profits hide in their daily routes. this has proven vital for their survival. When the Egyptian government decided to offshore a large majority of solid waste management to three multinational companies, its efficiency couldn’t match the street trade.
“They just didn’t have the know-how of the Zabaleen. They didn’t have the relationships or the trust,” explains Nicole Assad, a long-time worker with the association for the Protection of the environment (APE), an NGO that works with Garbage City. After many decades of successful waste service, the Zabaleen remain an integral part of many communities and neighborhoods in Cairo—something that cannot be said of the waste management companies.
Recycling by hand appears to point to an efficiency large corporations can only aspire to. While the majority of waste processed by the private companies ends up in landfill sites, Zabaleen workers recycle at a rate of 85 percent. This includes keeping an eye out for types of materials that can be used for direct use in their own community without the need for a middleman.
Bekhit describes the latest plan of getting solar powered lamps for the neighborhood’s streets: “We sell the recycled raw materials to companies here and use that money to buy the solar panels from Germany. The rest of the wiring and things we get straight from the rubbish”. Light, in exchange for what others see as rubbish.
Beyond that, Bekhit describes the rough deals that they have with several schools, factories and hospitals around Cairo. “These organizations would send their waste to us, and the community would clean, recycle, and repackage the goods to be sold back out to them or to fair trade shops around Egypt”.
At APE, over 450 women from Garbage City work to make recycled merchandise. after a month’s vocational training in sewing, molding, weaving or painting, they produce a variety of goods, from recycled greetings cards to pots, pans, rugs and bags. All sourced from the piles, these goods can be found at fair trade shops all around Egypt. and more recently, in New York City.
“We received a phone call from an Egyptian who was living in New York, and they wanted to sell some of our goods at some of those little fairs they have in Manhattan. Last year we managed to make just over USD 46,000”, explains Nicole. In an area where the average worker has a daily income of a dollar, this money goes a long way for the community.
With the Egyptian pound continuing to nosedive and the future of the economy as a whole somewhat bleak, the success of the Zabaleen trade is becoming increasingly predicated on overseas sales—perhaps an anomaly for an extremely localized, low-income recycling business. Or perhaps the most efficient way to process garbage.