Cairo’s ‘garbage people’ – known as the Zabaleen – are recycling 85 percent of Cairo’s garbage, a staggering rate given European cities only recycle 32 percent on average, according to a short film by National Geographic on the Zabaleen.
In addition, the amount of garbage they collect daily amounts to nearly 9,000 tons – the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower, the film adds.
Cairo’s Zabaleen population is estimated to be between 50,000 and 70,000 and are based in seven different settlements – the biggest one is located at the bottom of the Mokattam Mountains and is most commonly referred to as “Garbage City”. With a population of 20,000 to 30,000, over 90 percent of Zabaleen residing in this settlement are Coptic Christians.
The Zabaleen go door-to-door collecting garbage, before taking it back to “Garbage City” in donkey carts or trucks where the trash is sorted and organized into 16 different types of waste everyday.
The Zabaleen, who live in extremely impoverished conditions, have faced many challenges over the years threatening their livelihood.
In 2003, they found themselves sidelined after multinationals were awarded contracts for household waste collection by Cairo’s municipal authorities. Some Zabaleen saw as much as a 75 percent decrease in earnings as a result.
Then in 2009, the government ordered the culling of pigs used by the Zabaleen over fears of swine flu. Pigs had the important function of eating the organic waste and their meat also provided the Zabaleen with another source of income.
Despite these recent setbacks, the Zabaleen continue to provide an alternative system of garbage collection that has garnered respect from international quarters.