The “Garbage People” of Cairo

Until 2003, the city of Cairo, Egypt had no garbage disposal programs. No contracts with companies to collect refuse at all. So what happened to all the garbage? The Zabbaleen, a group of Coptic Christian people, have collected Cairo’s garbage since the 1940s.

Some Zabbaleen people collecting trash
Some Zabbaleen people collecting trash

The Zabbaleen first migrated to the foot of the Mokattam Mountains in the 1930s. With limited resources for work, they began paying for people’s trash. All organic material was used to feed their pigs, they would then attempt to reuse or recycle the rest.

Some of the Zabbaleen have moved into the Cairo Necropolis
Some of the Zabbaleen have moved into the Cairo Necropolis

The term Zabbaleen translates directly to “garbage people,” which, as rude as it sounds, is a somewhat apt description. They collect and recycle trash throughout Cairo. In fact, they manage to recycle more than most first world nations and do it for free. While, on average, Western nations’ recycle 20-25% of the garbage collected, the Zabbaleen recycle an amazing 80%!

More recently, they have begun encountering some problems. In 2003, the city of Cairo signed contracts with three different collection agencies. Because the Zabbaleen have no formal contract with the city, they received no compensation for this change. To make matters worse, when H1N1 flu (swine flu) spread in 2009, the government began a culling of all pigs.

Pigs being collected for slaughter in 2009 Photo: Shawn Baldwin for the New York Times
Pigs being collected for slaughter in 2009
Photo: Shawn Baldwin for the New York Times

Many around the world saw the slaughter of 300,000 pigs as a large mistake (the UN condemning it and the World Health Organization saying it had no scientific basis).  And for good reason too, seeing as swine flu had not even affected Egypt. Later, the Egyptian government admitted that it was not culling the pigs for swine flu, but as a first step in “cleaning up” the Zabbaleen.

A street in "Garbage City"
A street in “Garbage City”

With so many changes in government since that year, it’s unknown if the Zabbaleen will have a sustainable living. They have requested that the garbage collectors simply separate the organic trash for them, but so far to no avail. Perhaps the current leadership will bring a better future.

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