• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Zabbaleen: The Garbage Pickers of Cairo, Egypt

Air Date: Week of

Zabbaleen is an Arabic word meaning "garbage people." Laurie Neff reports from Egypt's capital Cairo on these Zabbaleen who are active and enterprising recyclers, and what they can teach people in other huge cities around the world about rubbish re-use.


CURWOOD: The world's urban leaders are gathering in Istanbul as June begins for a special United Nations conference on the rapid growth of cities. More people will live in cities in 30 years than occupied the entire planet just a decade ago. The Habitat II meeting will focus on the problems this boom is bringing, as well as putting the spotlight on some possible solutions. One success story that will be highlighted is an innovative project in Cairo that is attempting to transform the city's scavenger community into entrepreneurs. In Arabic they are called Zabbaleen: literally "garbage people." From the Egyptian capitol, Laurie Neff has their story.

(Trash being gathered; a woman speaks in Arabic)

NEFF: A middle-aged barefoot woman sweats in the heat of the midday Cairo sun a she shovels garbage from a truck into a large space underneath her home, where it will be sorted. Nearby sits Neama Sami, a 6-year-old boy, unwashed and in tattered clothes.

NEAMA SAMI: [Speaks in Arabic]
TRANSLATOR: My uncle and my grandfather go with a cart and collect garbage and bring the things over. And we sort it. The glass alone, the garbage alone, and the glass with oil alone. The plastics, like the hard plastic and this soft plastic, we take it and sort it out.

NEFF: These are the Zabbaleen of Egypt: some 18 to 20,000 live in the squatter settlement called Manshiet Nasser in hills on the outskirts of Cairo. Theirs is not a pleasant job or environment. Piles of rubbish, bits of plastic, newspaper and flies feasting on rotted lettuce, onions and banana peels, sit inside and outside many buildings here. Some are burning, adding an acrid thick smoke to a heavy, putrid odor of decay. Muddied streets are filled with animals: pigs, goats, chickens, and dogs, alive and dead. Narrow pathways are clogged with donkey carts and battered trucks loaded with debris. Lilah Kamel is an Egyptian activist involved with the Zabbaleen.

KAMEL: Yes, well, the lowest rung of society, I don't need to tell you, their trade makes them look dirty, smell bad. They handle rotting food manually, which is awful. They perform the lowest service in the city. But the most important one, or one of them, because it keeps us alive and healthy.

NEFF: Cairo, a city with an estimated population of 14 to 16 million, produces some 7,000 tons of garbage a day, and the Zabbaleen pick up more than 60% of it. Trash gathering has been the Zabbaleen trade since they started coming to Cairo from upper Egypt in the late 1940s and 50s. They were Coptic Christian pig farmers who began collecting garbage to feed their animals. Mounir Neamatalla is an Egyptian environmental activist who's worked with the Zabbaleen for 17 years. He says as bad as Manshiet Nasser is now, it was much, much worse.

NAMATALLA: People, some 15, 20 years ago, resided in shacks encrusted within garbage piles. Today the conditions are very different. Businesses, there are cafes, there are workshops, there are schools, there are pathways that people can access the settlements. I remember just going into the settlement was almost an impossible endeavor.

NEFF: The improvement since then is not due to any government action but the accomplishment of a number of private Egyptian groups, largely funded by Western foundations, religious organizations, and the World Bank. The starkest example of their work sits behind a large metal green gate in the middle of the neighborhood. The gate opens onto a smooth paved road that's virtually spotless. There's no garbage on this street. Inside, Zabbaleen women and girls work on looms in a bright L-shaped factory. They're learning to recycle rags left over from textile mills, that they turn into everything from bags to patchwork quilts. Ms. Kamel helped set up the facility 8 years ago. She says it's actually a form of non-traditional education.

KAMEL: So the rags come in big bags from the textile industry. They're dumped in the middle of a clean room. The girls sit around it just like they do at home around garbage, and they start sorting into baskets. It's like coloring into a coloring book: color, order, classification, categorization, space relationships.

NEFF: Girls and women trained here produce 300 products a week, generating more than $70,000 last year. At the same time, Lilah Kamel says, they're learning such things as personal hygiene, family planning, and personal responsibility.

KAMEL: Personal hygiene first, they have to come clean. I don't care how little water there is in the neighborhood. I taught them in the literacy school how to do just that. Take a bath with so little water. Wash. And they have to have one clean dress. I don't care how poor we are, we have one clean dress in the closet that we come to school with.

NEFF: The rag facility is just the latest addition to the neighborhood. Down the street is a composting factory, set up in 1987. The Zabbaleen used to pay people to clean out their animal stalls. Now, instead of paying to get rid of organic waste, the Zabbaleen are earning more than a half million dollars a year by composting their animal waste and selling it to farmers and for use in desert reclamation projects. The first formal undertaking here was a recycling micro-enterprise project Mounir Neamatella set up in 1983. He showed the Zabbaleen how to process and re manufacture solid waste instead of selling it to middlemen. He also helped set up loans so that trash pickers could buy machines to grind, mold and smelt raw materials. Mr. Neamatella says the
aim of all these projects was to cultivate the Zabbaleen's existing occupation in an effort to clean the environment and improve their standard of living.

NEAMATELLA: I mean that's really the most fascinating aspect of the work of the Zabbaleen, is that waste is indeed a resource. It's regarded as a resource, and it enters into a cycle, into a commercial cycle, where small establishments that don't have much resources can access a cheap, raw material to produce a product that can then be sold to a large number of low-income people that reside in Cairo.

NEFF: Residents here, such as 19-year-old Jonee Ginataya, say their standard of living has improved tremendously.

GINATAYA: [Speaks in Arabic]
TRANSLATOR: First there weren't houses like these. There were tin shacks. And there weren't trucks to bring the garbage. There were donkey carts. Now of course, these tin shacks have been removed, and we have these houses like this. And the wooden donkey carts that used to bring the garbage are now trucks. There's now water, electricity, and sewers. Now there is everything here.

NEFF: A recently concluded private survey shows that there were nearly 1,400 houses made of brick or stone in Manshiet Nasser in 1993, compared with just 5 in 1975. And today, 85% of households have access to water and 97% have electricity. Formal education and heath care facilities were nonexistent 15 years ago. Now there are 2 schools, 5 literacy centers, 2 hospitals, and a number of health clinics. The infant mortality rate, 240 per 1,000 in 1979, has dropped by more than half. The economic makeup of the community has also been transformed. In 1981 there were no local industries. Pig production was the main source of income. As of 1993 there were 215 local enterprises, most involved in recycling. And the annual net income of a Zabbaleen household has increased 50-fold to nearly $100,000 a year. The changes appear to have had a positive impact on the self regard of the Zabbaleen. For example, young Jonee Ginataya, the daughter of illiterate trash sorters, plans to go to college and start her own business.

GINATAYA: [Speaks in Arabic]
TRANSLATOR: Of course it's my duty to bring my knowledge back. I will make a small project and it will grow and benefit the community. Any small company I make will grow, and any project, they will help make it grow, the youth of this community.

(Trash is shoveled in the background)

NEFF: The apparent success of the Zabbaleen operations has attracted international attention and they've become models for similar projects elsewhere. But activists acknowledge there's still a long way to go. The environment of Manshiet Nasser is still barely tolerable. Thousands of other Zabbaleen live in other scavenger settlements around Cairo untouched by such innovations. And while their self respect may be growing, the Zabbaleen are still looked down upon by most Egyptians. At the same time the Zabbaleen face a separate battle with some government officials who want to do away with their trade, replacing their creaky, dilapidated donkey carts with modern garbage collecting companies. Activists say that could mean the end of an operation that not only cleans the environment but teaches one of the lowest segments of Egyptian society how to help itself. For Living on Earth, I'm Laurie Neff in Cairo.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth