City of life: inside Cairo's Garbage City

More than 70,000 people live and work in ‘Garbage City’, sorting and recycling nearly two-thirds of Greater Cairo’s daily municipal waste output. Yet after decades of neglect, the tide could be about to turn for the Zabaleen community, thanks to the work of NGOs and a much-needed policy shift

On first inspection, the Manshiyet Nasser neighbourhood of Mokattam appears a pungent, anarchic mess of people, buildings, narrow alleys, cars and refuse. Apartment blocks tower precariously over a maze of winding streets, and when the wind picks up, the air becomes thick with a grimy dust, while clouds of flies attack any decaying organic matter.

Here, on the outskirts of central Cairo, in the shadow of the Mokattam hills, some 70,000 people live and work in and among the municipal waste of almost 12 million Cairenes. Known as the Zabaleen, which means garbage collectors in Arabic, they collect, sort and recycle nearly two-thirds of Greater Cairo’s daily municipal waste output – all 10,000 tons of it.

What’s more, the inhabitants of ‘Garbage City’, as it has become known, are reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfill – its diversion rate – by an amount that would arouse the envy of any international waste management companies.

“The Zabaleen are now recycling about 85 per cent of the garbage they receive,” explains Ezzat Naem, the head of the district’s Garbage Collectors Syndicate. By comparison, the EU is aiming for a recycling rate of just 50 per cent of household waste by the year 2020.

Originally subsistence farmers from Upper Egypt, the Zabaleen first arrived in Cairo in the 1940s and began working in close coordination with the existing garbage collectors, from the western Oasis governorates.

“When my people first came here, it was the Wahaya [Oasis people] who were collecting the rubbish,” explains Naem. “They would simply take it to the outskirts of the city and leave it to dry in the sun before selling it back to people as a fuel for fire.”

With the sudden influx of Upper Egyptians, the Wahaya quickly began contracting the new migrants to specific areas of Cairo. It is a business partnership that persists to this day. “Families have been working the same areas for over 60 years,” states Naem. “For example, my grandfather started by collecting garbage in El Koba Gardens, my father continued collecting from El Koba and my brothers continue to do so today.”

Yet while the routes may have remained consistent, the incredible proficiency of today’s Zabaleen is the result of a sustained evolution in their methods of collection, sorting and recycling. The early Zabaleen would simply use organic waste as a source of food for their livestock, ignoring the majority of inorganic materials and instead preferring to dump them in landfills. Local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) spotted an opportunity and in the 1960s they began visiting the Zabaleen to buy leftover inorganic materials like paper and metal, which they would then process and resell.

It wasn’t until 1984 that the Zabaleen themselves started recycling proper.  Micro-loans, provided in coordination with a World Bank programme, allowed the Zabaleen to forgo the third party SMEs. With advice and help from local NGOs, the Zabaleen entered a new period of efficient recycling that continues to outstrip most European and US cities today.

“It was important that we gave these children something to do, some preparation for school and to keep them away from the streets”In Manshiyet Nasser, the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) NGO was established in 1984, with the aim of helping the Zabaleen make the most out of their situation, in both an environmentally safe, and economically sound manner. Thanks to funding from local and international donors, APE has offered the residents of Manshiyet Nasser guidance and assistance through an ever-expanding range of programmes and workshops.

“The main objective when we started was to simply help them in the recycling of rubbish,” says Hany Al Arian, director of APE. “Right now we have diversified into the production of recycled products; programmes for women; pre-school for the kids; and of course, health coverage.”

In spite of the Zabaleen’s obvious proficiency in recycling, working conditions remain a major health concern. The Zabaleen and their families spend their days surrounded by potentially infectious, disease-ridden garbage. Since 2007, Al Arian estimates that APE has spent some EGP17m ($2.4m) on treatments alone, much of it to battle diseases including hepatitis C, diabetes, anaemia, and glaucoma – all of which are common.

“We are especially concerned for the women,” he says. “They are the ones sorting through and categorising the inorganic waste their husbands bring them. We have been doing a number of awareness, treatment and prevention programmes on good health practices for the Zabaleen.”

On the ground floor of the APE building is a small treatment room. A congregation of women waits patiently outside to see the doctors, happy just to have a healthcare option close to their homes. Outside the main block, a small school is hidden among recently planted trees. Packed with young children, the tiny classrooms overlook a garden built by APE in 2002, replacing what had once been a large composting plant.

“It was important that we gave these children something to do, some preparation for school and to keep them away from the streets,” says Al Arian, adding that the facility – and others like it – accommodates children of any age, from birth up to the end of primary school.

“Right now, we have approximately 650 children coming to our schools,” he notes.

Less than 200 metres away, young mothers work in APE recycling centres, earning a wage, while staying close to their children. “One of the most important things we at APE can do is to empower the women here,” states Al Arian. “But empowering the women is not enough; you have to educate the men. So we are also trying to do some workshops to broaden their minds.”

One woman who found an opportunity with APE is 38-year-old Aida Ghaly. “After I was married, I became very lonely, so I came to APE looking for something to do,” she recalls. “I quickly learnt embroidery and now teach it to other girls.

“The income from our recycled products should make the programme self-sustaining” “My husband was happy because I was nearby, had work that would help our income, and APE were able to help me when I had my children, and in providing early education for them too.”

Using her talent for embroidery, Ghaly is one of around 200 women who help to create recycled products from paper and textiles. Close to the rooms where the women work, a huge array of their products are on sale, from bags and birthday cards, to pillow covers and coin purses.

“We have maybe 200 different design styles, but we modify and add new ones every day,” explains one of the local workers proudly.

“The income from our recycled products should make the programme self-sustaining, but since the revolution we have had trouble on that front,” says Al Arian. “Because the local economy is in such difficulty, people are less willing to spend and we are having to look more to overseas markets.”

The Zabaleen are hoping that more recent political developments will help, rather than hinder, their progress. In the early 2000s their community was dealt a massive blow when the Egyptian government decided to contract four multinational waste management corporations to deal with Cairo’s rubbish. A 15-year deal was signed that stipulated the multinationals needed to maintain a recycling rate of just 20 per cent, while the Zabaleen were told to stop collecting altogether. The income loss of the Zabaleen, coupled with the needless waste ending up in landfills meant that a few years into the contract, the experiment was condemned as a catastrophic failure.

“These companies came with a European attitude, they weren’t aware of what the Zabaleen provided,” explains Naem. “So they placed large [skips] in the streets, instead of going door to door. They asked the residents to bring the garbage down to the street. Of course the Egyptians refused.

“We are the only people in the whole world who will go into apartments and collect your garbage from your front door,” he continues proudly. “Now they are subcontracting the Zabaleen through the Wahaya, adding another layer where income is lost for the average Zabal.”

Egypt’s new government has accepted that the corporatisation of waste disposal in Cairo was a misstep, and is now preparing to integrate the Zabaleen formally into the city’s official waste management system. “The others have failed, be they the government or the foreign companies, and now [the Zabaleen] should get a turn, having been sidelined for so long,” Laila Iskandar, Egypt’s Minister of State for Environment Affairs, under the interim government of Prime Minister Hazem El Beblawi, said earlier this year. “They are the people who have the longest experience in refuse collection.”

With the multinationals’ contract due to end in 2017 and with APE and other NGOs continuing in their work with the Zabaleen community, Naem is optimistic for the future. “Now the government is beginning to acknowledge us and we are cared for a bit more,” he says. “I feel the future could be very bright for my people.”