Waste Not Want Not

By Norton, Andre | The Middle East, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Waste Not Want Not


Norton, Andre, The Middle East


Long before the idea was fashionable in the West, Cairo had been recycling over half its household waste. But it is not the city authority that has shown such foresight, but a community of Copts, the so-called Zabbaleen.

The first glow of the morning sun has begun to appear beyond the tile minarets and skyscrapers of the Cairo skyline. Soon, the wailing of the muezzins will commence, calling the faithful to the first prayer of the day. For one group of Cairenes, though, the day is already under way. In seven crowded settlements around the outskirts of this city of 16 million, kitchen stoves have been lit and the inhabitants are getting dressed. Few of them pay any heed to the muezzins, for most of them are Copts, Egypt's Christian minority.

By five o'clock, a motley assortment of vehicles is leaving each site, heading out into the slumbering city. Cairo's garbage collectors, the Zabbaleen, are on their way to work.

This is not a refuse service run by the metropolitan authority and paid for by taxpayers. The Zabbaleen are entirely independent of the city authority-the Cairo Governorate. Their wages come from recycling the piles of waste they collect.

In this sprawling mega-city, which grows by over 2,000 people a day, the Zabbaleen perform an essential role. Cairo's inhabitants daily produce over 6,000 tonnes of solid waste and they deal with half of that. "If we stopped collecting, Cairo would be buried in garbage," boasts one Zabbal. Over 80% of the rubbish they collect is actually recycled. By comparison, London, with half the population of Cairo, produces over 6,600 tonnes of household waste a day and recycles just 3% of that.

"The system is not perfect,' admits Mounir Bushra, an engineer with Environmental Quality International (EQI), a consultancy that has assisted the Zabbaleen since 1980. "But it has lots of advantages over the Western approach to waste management."

Bushra is himself a Copt and a board member of the Association for the Care of Garbage Collectors (known as AI Gameya), the main organisation representing the Zabbaleen, and has become their unofficial spokesman. Cairo's method of dealing with its waste, unique among the world's major cities, dates back almost 100 years, long before recycling was even thought of in the West.

A group of migrants from the Western Desert, known as the Wahis who settled in Cairo at the turn of the century found they could make a good living charging for collecting rubbish and then selling the food waste as fuel for homes and Turkish bath-houses. But with Cairo's rapid expansion from the 1940s onwards, the rubbish mountains grew too big for the Wahis. A new group of migrants, the Zarrab-Coptic pig-breeders from the Assiut region of Upper Egypt-came to the rescue.

Like the Wahis, they had been forced to leave their homes by economic hardship. But with limited skills, the Zarrabs had few options open to them in Cairo other than to continue breeding pigs. Food waste made ideal fodder for their swine and they began to take over the job of rubbish collection. Gradually, this became their main activity and their ancestry was forgotten. They became known as the garbage collectors, the Zabbaleen.

The arrival of the Zarrabs did the Wahis an immense favour, allowing them to establish what was virtually a protection racket. No longer did they have to organise garbage collections, yet they continued to levy fees on building owners and householders.

In the fast-growing city that Cairo is today, it is impossible to maintain this sort of stranglehold and the Wahi / Zabbaleen relationship has become more symbiotic. As soon as a new block of fiats starts to go up, Wahis try to fix up a deal with the building owners. They then parcel out the collecting business to Zabbaleen they know.

Despite their importance to the city, the Zabbaleen have long been shunned by other Cairenes. Officialdom has often seemed to be against them, too. …

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