Cairo: Finding its own way in waste collection

Cairo: Finding its own way in waste collection – Danish Architecture Centre | Source/complete article: Sustainable Cities, Jan 2014

Excerpts – For decades, much of Cairo’s waste has been resourcefully collected and reused by a poor working class known as the Zabbaleen. After a failed attempt to modernise and sanitize this system by bringing in foreign waste-collecting companies, some major advantages to developing a sustainable, economically logical and uniquely Cairo waste-collecting system have become clear.

Skraldebyen Ezbet El Nakhl, Af Creap, 9. maj 2005, Flickr, Creative Commons, Foto # 13067241

Skraldebyen Ezbet El Nakhl, Af Creap, 9. maj 2005, Flickr, Creative Commons, Foto # 13067241

Since the 1950’s, a group of lower class garbage collectors known as the Zabbaleen have wandered the city of Cairo, Egypt, using donkey carts to pick up waste left on the streets. After bringing this waste to their homes that collectively make up Cairo’s “garbage city” the waste it is sorted and eventually turned into quilts, rugs, pots, paper, livestock food, compost, recycled plastic products such as clothes hangers, and much more. Reusing and recycling about 85% of all waste that they collect, the Zabbaleen have far surpassed the efficiencies of even the best Western recycling schemes, which, under optimal conditions, have only been able to reuse 70% of all material.

However, in 2003, the Egyptian government announced plans to “modernise” the waste collection system, bringing in three European Companies. Their reasoning was that the Zabbaleen, combined with the government’s present waste management system, were only able to collect about 60% of all city waste (40% collected by Zabbaleen and 20% by the government). In addition to being unable to meet the growing waste collection demand, the existing system was also detested for its aesthetic problems in wealthy and tourist-visited areas that were losing commercial opportunities to donkey carts and smells of rotting dung. Finally, the government argued that the Zabbaleen practises were backward and unsanitary, pointing to the abundance of disease and hepatitis in their communities resulting from hand-sorting rubbish with sharp metal, broken glass, and hospital waste such as syringes.

While all of these arguments were mostly true, the new “modernised” waste collection system still managed to collapse after its first year of operation. It seems the primary reason for this was a failure to compete with or hire the Zabbaleen as collectors, offering them a maximum of only $1 USD a day; a wage which could easily be doubled using the existing donkey cart, sorting and selling system. Also, since it is almost impossible to recycle garbage after it is compressed by a western collection truck, the European companies were only able to recycle about 20% of all waste. In this sense, the profit they were generating from their government salary and sale of recyclables was far surpassed by that which the Zabbaleen were obtaining by simply selling and re-selling products made from many different kinds of waste.

Now, with streets again filled with rubbish and a government that is $50 million USD poorer, Cairo seems to be realising that a new waste collection system must include the Zabbaleen and must have a percentage of recycled waste closer to that which the Zabbaleen achieve. Ultimately, it seems that the answer lies not in the adoption of a foreign system but in the pioneering of a novel solution that is sustainable, economically logical, and unique to Cairo. Recent proposals suggest the use of government-funded collection vehicles that do not compact waste and are operated by presently unemployed citizens. These vehicles collect garbage from citizens who have sorted their rubbish into organic and inorganic categories. Inorganic waste is brought to sorting facilities where the Zabbaleen can manually sort through it more efficiently (and perhaps more safely) in order to recycle and reuse as much waste as possible using the production methods presently in place. Organic waste goes to government composting plants that ensure it is not fed to smelly disease-carrying livestock in the city.

Cairo’s waste management story is not just a living testament to the value in rubbish and the money that can be made in waste-sorting. It is also yet another example of how sustainability often requires us to assess our individual unique situation and not simply resort to importing solutions that have worked elsewhere.

Zabbaleen History – Over the many decades that the Zabbaleen have lived in Cairo, their lifestyle and living conditions have greatly improved. With the help of a technical assistance group, the local government, and international donors such as the International Development Association of the World Bank, the Zabbaleen have been able to invest in technologies such as plastic shredders and cloth looms to produce usable products and turn a profit. Also, many young Zabbaleen have learned how to recycle high tech goods, selling usable electronic parts back to their original companies. Accordingly, despite being a religious minority and initially detested within Cairo, they have developed a symbiotic relationship with the city that, today, many inhabitants are unwilling to part with.

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