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Multinational takeover threatens the livelihood of the Zabbaleen, Egypt


The Zabbaleen of Cairo, which, loosely translated, means garbage people, live in Cairo’s “Garbage City”, a slum settlement within Cairo’s metropolitan area. The slum is called Mokattam. The settlement is infamous for being covered in garbage, including the streets, rooftops, and balconies.  The Zabbaleen community in Mokattam Village has a population of around 20,000 to 30,000, over 90 percent of which are Coptic Christians.  The Zabbaleen are the traditional waste collectors of Cairo, originally migrants from upper Egypt, who over time have created one of the world’s most efficient and sustainable resource recovery and waste-recycling systems. They created new settlements that came to be known as garbage villages or cities in the outskirts of Cairo, and provided residential areas with door-to-door garbage collection. The waste collection started with collecting organic waste to be fed to their pigs in return of a small monthly fee paid by residents. While they previously used to use donkey carts, today they use trucks instead. As such, they have greatly improved the capacity of Cairo to manage its waste at minimal cost or effort to the city administration.  However the livelihood and waste management system created by the Zabbaleen is currently under threat.  Since 2003, the Cairo governorate has been implementing a policy of privatization of municipal solid waste management through the contracting of multi-national corporations, jeopardizing the livelihood and sustainability of the garbage collectors’ communities, by removing their central economic asset: municipal solid waste. Cairo Governorate, the largest in Egypt, faces significant municipal solid waste management challenges.

  In the year 2000, the government starting privatizing the waste management system, and contracted international (Spanish and Italian) and national companies for waste collection. 15-year contracts of up to $50 million were signed in 2002 with four international companies to provide integrated waste management services, including collection, transfer, and disposal, in Cairo and Alexandria. One of these contracts was terminated in 2006 due to “contractual issues with the government”. Besides these four (now 3) companies, some local and national private companies were also contracted.  While the Zabbaleen had previously recycled 80% of the waste they collected, these companies were required to recycle 20%, the rest of which would go into landfills. The Zabbaleen could keep their jobs as wage workers with these companies, and they would also be responsible for street sweeping and placement of garbage bins. The Zabbaleen claim, however, that the salaries offered are less than what they used to make independently, and that they used to earn 90% of their income from recycling rather than from the collection fee.

  These contracts were part of a governmental strategy to enhance Municipal Solid Waste Managment (MSWM) in Egypt, under the Egyptian Environmental Policy Program (EEPP), the main purpose of which was to improve the performance and efficiency of SWM. Under this program, the National Strategy for Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management (IMSWM) was issued by the MSEA and EEAA in 2000, which brought in the idea of public-private partnership for MSWM in its different stages.  Some researchers have linked privatization plans to the 1990s IMF Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Program (ERSAP) which applied the World Bank’s economic strategies of free market enterprises, privatization of state services (including waste management), and reduced public spending by eliminating subsidies for lower classes.

  Besides  inefficient implementation of this program, it suffered from a great drawback, mainly the lack of attention and incorporation of the Zabbaleen in this new system of privatization. Citizens still preferred the traditional door-to-door collection method of the Zabbaleen.  Moreover, it did not take into account that the large trucks of the companies cannot go into the narrow streets of Cairo, requiring the placement of bins in central collection points, to the dismay of residents.

  When President Mohammad Morsi advertised large waste management firms as facilitating his “clean homeland” campaign, he again overlooked the manpower, equipment, and expertise of the Zabbaleen. This initiative was supposed to remove large amounts of garbage from the streets of Cairo, relying mostly on volunteers to collect the garbage and companies to come in and transport this waste to dumpsites, instead of creating a long-term efficient solution. Besides not utilizing the Zabbaleen and their expertise in waste management, this initiative did not present a clear system with a clear solution.

  With the government consistently preferring large contractors for waste management, the traditional Zabbaleen have been left out. Moreover, instead of recycling the waste, such companies simply dump them in landfills located all over Cairo. Meanwhile, the Zabbaleen would provide many benefits if they were granted contracts by the state. These advantages include door-to-door garbage collection, thus limiting waste overflow in streets and overflowing dumpsters, which is a familiar site in Cairo. Moreover, they are incredibly efficient recyclers. Traditionally, they used to feed the organic waste to their pigs, but even this system was ruined by the state when it culled all their pigs in 2009 under the pretense of avoiding swine flu. The pig rearing was more important to the Zabbaleen than initially thought, since they sell the meat to tourist facilities for fair prices. With their main processor of organic waste gone, with the culling of up to 300000 pigs, the Zabbaleen refused to collect organic waste from Cairo, leaving piles of garbage in the streets, creating another sort of environmental and health disaster, replacing the threat of swine flu with the threat of typhus. It eventually became clear that the culling of pigs was not about the swine flu but about cleaning up the Zabbaleen’s neighborhoods. Moreover, many Zabbaleen quit the business because without the rearing of pigs, the tedious work of sorting through garbage became economically unfeasible.

Today, most of this organic waste is taken to composting facilities, moderated by civil society. The inorganic waste is carefully sorted in their homes to be used as new goods in the community or to be sold as raw material. They have an 8% recycling rate, four times higher than most Western garbage-collecting companies.

  The situation is made even worse for the Zabbaleen by another official policy of moving their activities, including sorting, recovery, trading, and recycling, outside of the city into the desert settlement of Katameya, as part of the Manshiet Nasser Informal Settlement Project, under the guise of making their neighborhoods cleaner and healthier. But such relocation would increase the Zabbaleen’s travel distance and consequently cost of services delivered to residents, thus compounding the threat to their sustainability and livelihood. There are also rumoured potential gentrification plans through relocating the community to new suburban settlements. This is again under the guise of improving the environment, but researchers claim that there exists a hidden agenda of securing land for urban development projects, considering the proximity of the settlement to touristic areas. There is a proposed plan of developing urban luxury residential gated communities by the Dubai-based Emaar property development company. This project is linked to another ongoing project called “The New Cairo Financial Centre and the Office Park” at the foot of the Muqattam Plateau.

  The citizens prefer the Zabbaleen system with its cheaper fees. They  reject the government’s plan to pay extra fees to private companies. As such the Zabbaleen still collect municipal solid waste alongside multinational companies and local municipalities, highlighting the contestation over Cairo’s municipal solid waste, where it is viewed as a commodity by the companies and a source of livelihood for the Zabbaleen.


Basic Data

Name of conflict:Multinational takeover threatens the livelihood of the Zabbaleen, Egypt
State or province:Cairo Governorate
Location of conflict:Cairo
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict: 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict: 2nd level :Urban development conflicts
Waste privatisation conflicts / waste-picker access to waste
Specific commodities:Domestic municipal waste

Project Details and Actors

Project details:

“Garbage City” is located on the poverty belt of Cairo in the Manshiet Nasser settlement located on the Muqattam mountain’s lower plateau, on the Eastern fringes of Cairo. The community is characterized by a high incidence of epidemics, illiteracy, poor environmental conditions, and low incomes ($60-75 per month).

The Zabbaleen collected up to 3,000 tones of garbage per day, 80% being recycled directly through their micro-enterprises, generating jobs and income for the community.

Municipal solid waste management is a serious problem in Egypt, and particularly in Cairo, with negative implications for both the environment, public health, and the national economy. Based on data from 2012, Egypt generates 20.5 million tons of municipal solid waste per year, 47% of which is generated by Cairo alone. [1] The efficiency of waste collection and transport is at 65%, which leads to daily accumulation of waste in streets and residential areas, as well as illegal dumping sites. However, in Cairo itself the efficiency is estimated at about 80%. Most of the landfills are open and exposed, and open burning is common as a method of dealing with waste. [1]

Only 40% of the waste in Cairo is collected by the CCBA. The Zabbaleen and the formal private sector collect another 40%, and 20% remain on the streets for random collection.

Therefore, a majority of waste collection and street sweeping services in Egypt is performed by the private sector (both formal, through contracted national and international companies, and informal, the traditional garbage collectors or Zabbaleen).

The informal private sector, or the Zabbaleen, are not contracted formally and their activities are unregistered and unregulated, with no acknowledgement from the government, and these services are carried out by families or small enterprises.

Some NGOs are also indirectly related to the waste management system, where their role is mainly to improve the livelihoods of the Zabbaleen by helping them build community groups to help raise awareness for waste management and environmental issues, as well as working on the capacity building of these community groups. They help establish community-based organizations (CBOs) to become the link between the Zabbaleen and the government.

Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:80,000-150,000
Company names or state enterprises:Egyptian Company for Garbage Collection (ECGC) from Egypt
URBASER from Spain - Spanish Waste management company
FCC from Spain - Private Spanish waste management company
AMA S.p.A. (ama) from Italy - Italian Waste management company
Emaar from United Arab Emirates - Dubai-based Emaar property development company that proposes developing urban luxury residential gated communities in the neighbourood
Relevant government actors:Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs (MSEA)
Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA)
The Cairo Cleansing and Beautification Authority (CCBA)
Cairo Governorate
Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities (MHUUC)
General Organisation for Physical Planning (GOPP)
Ministry of Local Development (MoLD)
Ministry of Finance (MoF)
International and Finance InstitutionsThe World Bank
German Development Bank KfW (KfW) from Germany
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE)
Community and Institutional Development (CID)
Environment Quality Internation (EQI)
Environmental Protection Company (EPC)

Conflict and Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageUnknown
Groups mobilizing:Informal workers
Local ejos
Wastepickers, recyclers
Religious groups
The Zabbaleen are Coptic Christians
Forms of mobilization:Involvement of national and international NGOs
Street protest/marches

Impacts of the project

Environmental ImpactsPotential: Global warming, Soil contamination, Waste overflow
Health ImpactsPotential: Infectious diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Loss of livelihood, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Application of existing regulations
Development of alternatives:A member of CID consulting has proposed integrating the Zabbaleen into the international companies' contracts. He suggests that transfer stations can be established where non-organic MSW can be sorted and sent to existing traders. The Zabbaleen can continue collecting the rate on a door-to-door basis and continue recycling, and only pass the residual waste to the companies. Moreover, they can receive inorganic waste from these companies as input for the recycling business and get contracted for specific types of waste directly from the generators of waste, such as paper from print shops, etc... He also recommends the establishment of small community-based composting facilities. In addition, their nationwide trading network can be connected to the formal sector of solid waste management, thus making the system mutually beneficial for both sides.
Ezzat Naem Gendy, Chairman of the Garbage Collector Syndicate, proposes that an ideal system would be to divide Cairo into different areas, supervised by local collection companies. This would help localize efforts within each area for waste management, and circumventing the neglect shown by major corporations who tend to underperform.
According to Dr. Leila Iskandar, chairperson of CID consulting, working at full capacity, the Zabbaleen will be able to cover the waste of two thirds of Cairo. They have now formed around 32 companies to make it possible for the government to give them contracts instead of larger corporations (data from 2012)
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The Zabbaleen are still not formally contracted, although there are rumours that this might change when the contracts of companies end at the end of 2017

Sources and Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Egypt does not have an integrated MSWM law. Rather, the legal framework is scattered in many bylaws and regulation: The most significant pieces of legislation are:

- Law # 38/ 1967

- Law # 31/ 1976

- Law # 4/ 1994

- Law # 10/ 2005

- The Prime Minister Decree #1741/ 2005

- Law # 9/ 2009

The Presidential Decree # 86/ 2010

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Municipal Solid Waste Management in Egypt- Focus on Cairo

Towards Sustainable Management of Solid Waste in Egypt

Formalizing the Informal? The Transformation of Cairo's Refuse Collection System

Cairo’s Contested Garbage: Sustainable Solid Waste Management and the Zabaleen’s Right to the City

The impact of privatization of solid waste management on the Zabaleen garbage collectors of Cairo

Recycling the Rejects of the Rejects; Protection of the Environment and Poverty Alleviation by Job Creation to Youth

Cairo’s Zabaleen garbage recyclers: Multi-nationals’ takeover and state relocation plans

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Waste not: Egypt's refuse collectors regain role at heart of Cairo society

Garbage Collectors Syndicate criticises trash kiosks

[2] President’s controversial waste collection programme becomes institutionalised

Egypt Justice Minister resigns over Classist Comments on Garbage Collectors

Despite a new regime, Cairo’s garbage collectors face the same hardships

Morsy’s ‘Clean Homeland’ plan met with skepticism

Cairo's rich asked to sort waste at home

In pictures: meet Egypt’s garbage people, the Zabbaleen

Cairo’s Garbage City

Garbage Woes in Cairo

Egypt’s trash trouble: Mountains of garbage piling up

“Clean Homeland” campaign leaves out Cairo’s rubbish entrepreneurs

The Cave Church of the Zabbaleen in Cairo

Rubbish is a source of wealth and we are not capitalising on it

Egypt's persecuted Zabaleen garbage collectors

Turning waste into wealth with Cairo's garbage people

Cairo Municipal Solid Waste Management Project : Project Information Document (Concept Stage)

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Zabbaleen: Trash Town

Garbage Dreams: A documentary about the Zabbaleen

Other documents

A family at work in the Mokattam area of the Egyptian capital Cairo, where zabaleen collect, separate, sell or reuse rubbish. Photograph: Bernat Armangue/AP

A Coptic Christian family selecting garbage to sell. Sandor Jaszberenyi / The National

Slum Settlement with piles of garbage

Photo credits: L. Osbourne

Photo credits: L. Osbourne

Meta information

Contributor:Catherine Moughalian, Asfari Institute, AUB
Last update22/12/2018



A Coptic Christian family selecting garbage to sell. Sandor Jaszberenyi / The National

Slum Settlement with piles of garbage

Photo credits: L. Osbourne

Photo credits: L. Osbourne

A family at work in the Mokattam area of the Egyptian capital Cairo, where zabaleen collect, separate, sell or reuse rubbish. Photograph: Bernat Armangue/AP

A family at work in the Mokattam area of the Egyptian capital Cairo, where zabaleen collect, separate, sell or reuse rubbish. Photograph: Bernat Armangue/AP

A Coptic Christian family selecting garbage to sell. Sandor Jaszberenyi / The National

Slum Settlement with piles of garbage

Photo credits: L. Osbourne

Photo credits: L. Osbourne