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.