Can Egypt’s Zabaleen Trash Collectors Save Cairo from Environmental Disaster?
Religion & Liberty Online

Can Egypt’s Zabaleen Trash Collectors Save Cairo from Environmental Disaster?

Cairo is an amazing place. I lived and went to school in this city of over 9 million in the early 1990s. On top of the recent governmental conflict and unrest, it’s a city that has for a long time been devastated by pollution and environmental problems. The smog alone is a constant irritant to the senses.

During my time in Cairo, one of the most dramatic and life-changing events was visiting “Garbage City.” This neighborhood is where many of the Zabaleen people live and they have been sorting the trash in Cairo and using their entrepreneurial skills for decades. To see so many people living in that kind of poverty put my own life and blessings into perspective. When I heard that they were a Christian community, at that point their plight and just the blessing of being an American became very clear. I’ve talked about the Zabaleen people before on the PowerBlog. Because of their Christian faith, they have also been maligned and marginalized in Egypt. They were even forced to destroy their vast drove of pigs (300,000) because of a swine flu outbreak, even though the pigs had no role in the outbreak. The pigs were instrumental in the garbage recycling process for Cairo. Their absence has been detrimental to the excessive amounts of rotting food in the streets.

A few weeks ago, The Guardian ran an excellent story on what the Zabaleen people mean for Cairo and how the new government is aiming to finally give them official status for Cairo’s cleanup. It explains why they are so essential to the success of Cairo. Below is an excerpt from the piece:

“It’s an aberration. Over the years the Zabaleen have created an efficient ecosystem that is both viable and profitable, with a recycling capacity of almost 100 percent. It provides work for women and young people who are the first to suffer from Egypt’s unemployment. We need to use this local organisation,” said Leila Iskandar, who became minister of the environment after the fall of Morsi in July. She has worked for years with organisations in the working-class neighbourhood of Manchiet Nasser, where about 65,000 Zabaleen live.

Iskandar has reversed the policy of previous governments, which tried to marginalise the work of this Christian, mainly Coptic, minority. In 2003, Hosni Mubarak’s economically liberalising regime asked multinational corporations to handle waste disposal. “That model is not suited to Cairo, where residents are used to dustbins being emptied on each individual floor of a building. People couldn’t get used to taking down their garbage and putting it into special skips, which were later raided by thieves,” said Greiss. “As a result most people continued to pay the Zabaleen to come up and get their garbage unofficially, and then complained because they also had to pay for the foreign service company.”

The most disastrous decision was the mass cull of pigs in the spring of 2009 to prevent swine flu. “The WHO kept telling the government that the pigs had nothing to do with the epidemic but the government made its decision in 24 hours and 300,000 pigs were slaughtered. It was ridiculous,” said Greiss. The loss to the Zabaleen was considerable.

“Every family had at least a dozen animals and could get about $1,400 for the sale of a pig. That gave them some emergency money when they needed it. The rag collector’s income fell by half,” said Ezzat Naem, head of the Zabaleen union. “Thanks to that decision the Egyptian government deliberately destroyed an ecological system because once the pigs were dead it was no longer possible to recycle organic waste,” added Iskandar. Consequently, food lay rotting in the streets.

Now the Egyptian government is aiming to give official status to the Zabaleen’s role in Cairo’s waste processing. Under the joint management of the ministry of the environment and the Zabaleen union, 44 local waste disposal companies, using a labour force of 1,000 families, have been officially registered. They will take over waste disposal responsibilities in the south of the city from a subsidiary of Arab Constructors, an Egyptian company.

The environment ministry is also launching a public awareness campaign to get people to sort organic and non-organic waste on the doorstep. “Of course that will take time,” said Iskandar, who admitted that she still did not have the few hundred thousand dollars required for that project. “In the first six months we want to provide a free service, because people here are fed up with paying for nothing over the past year.”

Ezzat Naem brushed away a cloud of flies buzzing above his head and stepped over bags full of rubbish before entering the Zabaleen union’s offices in Manchiet Nasser. This militant in his 50s has worked all his life in waste disposal and seen things get worse and worse. He wants to believe that this time it will be different.

“We have always been treated as a backward people incapable of managing the refuse of such a large town. And yet we are the ones who invented an eco-city model.”

Read the entire article.

Ray Nothstine

Ray Nothstine is editor at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.