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Egypt's garbage collectors

Louise Osbourne, CairoJuly 7, 2014

Cairo's traditional garbage collectors, the Zabaleen, collect and recycle waste. Over the years, these Christians faced persecution from the authorities and Egyptians alike - but that could be changing.

Zabaleen in Kairo
Image: L. Osbourne

Sitting in the middle of towering plastic bags stuffed full of garbage is a 14-year-old girl. Her brown hair hangs in tangles around her face as she peers intently into each bag, her thin fingers throwing aside apple cores and banana peels. She works quickly, sorting paper, toothpaste tubes, yoghurt pots and cans into separate bags, ready to be sold for recycling.

This girl is one of the Zabaleen, people who work to collect garbage in Egypt's capital city, Cairo. Some go from door to door, while others sort the waste for recycling once it's brought back to their homes, here in the village of Mokattam.

The girl's mother, 35-year-old Um Georg, stands close by. Her long skirt falls down to her ankles revealing a small section of skin before her feet. Clad in brown pumps, they are almost completely covered by plastic rubbish, which gives off a faintly chemical smell.

"I don't go and collect the garbage myself, but I hire a car and people and they bring garbage to me," she said. "I segregate everything and make money out of selling stuff – cartons, this kind of rubber for gloves, plastic."

Garbage is a big problem in Cairo. With more than 17 million people estimated to be living in the Greater Cairo area, the city produces around 14,000 tons of trash every day, much of which is left on the streets.

Waste recycling

Since moving to the city in the 1940s, the Zabaleen have informally collected rubbish from its residents. They now gather about two-thirds of Cairo's waste, recycling around 85%.

Zabaleen in Kairo
The Zabaleen are an important fixture for Cairo, collecting and recycling the city's trashImage: L. Osbourne

Despite the vital service they provide, the Zabaleen suffered persecution from the Egyptian authorities for decades. Under former President Hosni Mubarak, around 300,000 pigs were slaughtered. The government at the time said it was to prevent the spread of swine flu, although many experts said it was unnecessary.

It hit the Zabaleen hard - pigs were an important part of their recycling system, eating the organic waste and providing pork. While Egypt's Muslim majority saw pigs as dirty animals, the Zabaleen, a minority Coptic Christian community, did not.

But with the ousting of Mubarak and Egypt's ongoing political upheaval, organizations supporting the Zabaleen have been trying to push through changes. The interim government put in place before the election of new President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signaled a turnaround.

Speaking in her office before she was replaced on June 17, the country's former environment minister Laila Iskandar said the authorities were moving to formalize the way the Zabaleen collect rubbish.

Pilot program

A pilot program was set up, to show how working with the Zabaleen would work where other methods of trash collection, such as using international hauling companies, has failed. It is thought the new environment minister Khaled Mohamed Fahmy Abdel Aal will continue with the reforms.

"The governor of Giza was the first governor to accept this pilot because the international company that had been contracted in three of the largest neighborhoods had withdrawn, so he had a gap and was willing to test something new," said Iskandar.

Zabaleen in Kairo
School children are encouraged to bring in empty bottles - in exchange they receive a small amount of moneyImage: L. Osbourne

Iskandar has been working with the Spirit of Youth Association, an organization founded by Zabaleen from Mokattam, to encourage the garbage collectors to set up small and medium sized enterprises, so they can gain contracts with local authorities.

Currently, the Zabaleen earn about 4 Egyptian pounds per day – the equivalent of 41 euro cents ($0.56) – to take garbage from apartments. Under the new scheme they would earn much more, with the local authorities paying them 12 pounds – around 1.20 euros - per apartment per month, said Iskandar.

"It's a sizeable shift," she said. "But it'll allow them to upgrade their trucks, to clean their appearance and gain some dignity to lead better lives and educate their kids"

Encouraging young people

The Zabaleen are getting on board, establishing more than 750 garbage companies in Mokattam alone, according to Ezzat Naem Guidy, the Spirit of Youth director.

But it's not only the Zabaleen who would benefit from the formalization. He says the changes would also encourage young people who are not part of the Coptic Christian community to get involved.

"A lot of Egyptians are unemployed and started to register for garbage and recycling," he said. “They found our business of garbage is not stigmatized and is being acknowledged by the government."

Despite the potential for competition from outside the traditional Zabaleen community, Guidy says it wouldn't cause conflict – there's plenty of trash to go around.

"Greater Cairo is producing 14,000 tons of garbage every day, the capacity of the Zabaleen is to collect 9,000, so there are 5,000 tons without coverage," he added. "The multinationals are not capable of collecting all of them, so they leave about 3,000 tons a day without collection."

After generations of persecution, it is believed the hoped for changes to Cairo's garbage system could help the Zabaleen children. According to the Spirit of Youth, almost half of the Zabaleen are estimated to suffer from Hepatitis C.

Meanwhile, only around half of boys are literate and even fewer girls. But most will, after all, take over from their parents in the family business.

Learning through shampoo bottles

In Mokattam, teachers at a school in heart of the Zabaleen neighborhood. As well as learning to read and write, in their mathematics classes the youngsters learn how to sort and count empty shampoo bottles for recycling.

Zabaleen in Kairo
Fayez says he will not let his son follow in his footstepsImage: L. Osbourne

The school encourages the children to attend by paying them to bring in the bottles. It teaches them how to work in the local industry, while also enabling them to bring money home to their families, says IT teacher Mary Moufeed.

"We are using a special way here, an unusual way to teach the children," she said. "They bring the shampoo bottles by the kilo and give it to us. The families are dependent on their children to bring more money, so we try to teach them and help them from the money side because we dont want the children to feel like they are not doing anything here [in school] and think that working outside is better."

It is children like these and their families that organizations like Spirit of Youth in conjunction with the government are hoping to help with the new scheme, says Guidy.

Still, there are some who are skeptical.

Back on the street amid piles of garbage bags, collector Abd el Mseih Fayez dodges trucks hooting their horns as they bring rubbish back to the neighborhood for sorting. As he watches his daughter sort through the bags he has brought with him from a day of work, he considers what will happen if and when the process is formalized.

"They [the apartment dewllers] used to pay a specific amount of money for us every month directly, but they are now paying that on top of their electricity bill and then the government will take a quarter of the money we used to get from the people themselves. No, [I don't trust the government] not really. I have to work by myself to make a living for myself and my children."

Hugging his seven-year-old son close to his side, Fayez said what he really wants is a better future for his three children.

"My life was wasted and my father's life was wasted, and my grandfather's also, as garbage collectors without any revenue" he said. "I have to get my sons educated and send them to school. They can be whatever they want - a doctor or lawyer. Those children who want to stay in this profession, their parents are crazy to let them."