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Cairo's Christian Ragmen, Unlikely Inventors Of Eco-Waste System

Young Zabbaleen in Manshiyat Naser, aka Garbage City
Young Zabbaleen in Manshiyat Naser, aka Garbage City
Marion Guénard

CAIRO — “Have you seen this? The streets are so filthy, it’s disgusting!”

Suzie Greiss doesn’t even live in one of Cairo’s notoriously poor corners, but rather in the middle-class neighborhood of Heliopolis, where the head of Egypt’s Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) says she can no longer stand the filth that has taken over the streets of the Egyptian capital these last few years.

In 2012, now-deposed President Mohamed Morsi used the situation as a campaign argument, saying he would clean up the town in a maximum of 100 days. He failed. “There’s only one solution: putting the Zabbaleen back in the heart of the process of garbage pickup and treatment,” Greiss says.

The Zabbaleen are Christians from Upper Egypt. Nicknamed “Cairo’s ragmen,” they settled in the outskirts of the city in the 1940s. With extremely poor backgrounds, they organized their keep around garbage collection, before taking up recycling in the early 1980s. With the help of NGOs and notably the APE, they equipped themselves with machines capable of recycling plastic, cardboard, paper and metal. Organic waste was left to the pigs that every family kept in their backyards. Animal feces was sent to a compost factory in the outskirts of Cairo to be transformed and sold to farmers.

9,000 tons of waste per day

Today, the Zabbaleen pick up around 9,000 tons of waste per day, almost two-thirds of the 15,000 tons that the 17 million Cairo residents throw out on a daily basis. But it is an essential role that has never been officially acknowledged by the Egyptian authorities.

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Moqattam Hill in Cairo — Photo: Matthias Feilhauer

“It’s an aberration,” says Environment Minister Leila Iskandar, who was appointed after Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. “Over the years, the Zabbaleen have created an efficient, viable and profitable ecosystem, with a waste recycling capacity of almost 100%. It’s a source of employment for youth and women, who are the first victims of unemployment in Egypt. We must rely on this local organization.” The minister has worked for several years in different associations in the working-class neighborhood of Manshiyat Naser — also known as "Garbage City" — where 65,000 Zabbaleen live.

Iskandar has chosen to act in direct opposition to the previous governments’ policies, which, for years, marginalized the Christian minority and their work. In 2003, then-President Hosni Mubarak’s ultraliberal regime had turned to multinational companies for waste removal.

“This system is not at all adapted to Cairo, where the inhabitants are used to their garbage being picked up in the buildings’ floors,” Greiss says. “They didn’t have the reflex to bring their waste down to the dumpsters set up for that purpose. The dumpsters then became a target for thieves. Most people kept on paying the Zabbaleen informally, who went up to get the garbage. The inhabitants complained because they also had to pay for the foreign companies.”

The most disastrous measure of all was the mass pig culling in the spring of 2009, to prevent swine flu. “The World Health Organization kept telling the government that the pigs had nothing to do with the epidemic,” Greiss recalls. “The decision was made in 24 hours. In 15 days, 300,000 pigs were slaughtered. It was absurd.” For the ragmen, the loss of income was considerable.

“Each family had at least a dozen beasts. Selling a pig could earn them around 1,080 euros,” says Ezzat Naem, head of the Zabbaleen union. “It allowed them to have money in times of need. The ragmen’s revenue was divided by two.”

Iskandar says that by making the choice they did, Egyptian authorities voluntarily destroyed an ideal ecological system. “After the pig culling, it was no longer possible to recycle the organic waste,” Iskandar adds. Food leftovers then started rotting in Cairo’s gutters.

“We invented the eco-city system”

The aim now is to formalize the work of the Zabbaleen in the waste treatment process. Under the supervision of the Ministry of the Environment and the Zabbaleen union, 44 local disposal companies — which have a workforce of 1,000 families — have officially been recognized. In a month, they will take over a branch of Arab Constructors, an Egyptian company that dropped its contract with Cairo to ensure waste removal in the south of the city.

The minister also aims to develop a selective management between organic and non-organic waste, by conducting an awareness-raising campaign with the population. “Of course, it will take time,” Iskandar says, admitting that she does not yet have the hundreds of thousands of euros necessary to carry out the project. “For the first six months, we want to provide a free service because the Cairo inhabitants are sick of paying for nothing for years.”

Ezzat Naem waves off a swarm of flies buzzing above his head, steps over bags full of garbage, before reaching his office at the Zabbaleen union. This activist, in his fifties, has spent his life in dumpsters without seeing the slightest improvement in his working conditions. This time, he wants to believe in a revolution. “We’ve always been considered incompetent, unable to manage such a big city’s waste. But we invented the eco-city system.”

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