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 Management (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 the 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 the cost of services delivered to residents, thus compounding the threat to their sustainability and livelihood. There are also rumored 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.
The emergence of new recycling initiatives after 2017
The previously mentioned contracts with multinationals ended in 2017 and Laila Iskandar, Egypt’s Minister of State for Environment Affairs acknowledged that the approaches failed due to the government and foreign companies. “Now the Zabbaleen should get a turn … [they] have the longest experience in refuse collection” . Over the years, community organizations such as Spirit of Youth (SOY) and Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) have helped empower the Zabbeleen through educational programs for young community members , assistance in environmentally-friendly income-generating activities such as weaving and patchwork . But both organizations also foster the development of Zabbaleen-led recycling companies, by 2019 approximately 120 Zabbeleen companies  are contracted by the government in Cairo. This means that their work has been formalized; the Zabbeleen are taxed, receive higher fees, uniforms, government vehicles and training programs .
But apart from Zabbeleen-led recycling initiatives, the post-2017 situation in Cairo is also characterized by the emergence of private recycling firms. For the Zabbaleen who have not established their own companies and remain informal, this development has sometimes been met with violence and resistance.
Take for example the start-up company RecycoLife, a Cairo-based waste management startup that converts solid waste such as plastic and aluminum into high-quality raw materials for local factories . The start-up offers households money for sorted recyclable materials and the founder of this startup, Mina Bahr explicitly states that RecyoLife’s model conflicts with that of the Zabbeleen: “The Zabbeleen want waste for free because [they see it as] their right” . Bahr also states that the real trouble began when the Zabbeleen visited the districts where RecycoLife was purchasing waste from households. RecyoLife’s collectors have been violently attacked and Bahr himself received phone calls ordering him to shut down his company . Bahr remarks that “We want the Zabbeleen to have a profit, but not [the whole] market”, he admits that the Zabbaleen are exceptional experts at gathering waste but concludes that his processing technology is superior.
Bekia is another recent recycling initiative launched in May 2017 by Mohamed Zory and Alaa Kama and it aims to help Cairo’s inhabitants monetize their trash . Bekia is an online barter system where citizens are able to exchange recyclable waste for a wide variety of items such as cooking oil, books, newspapers, mobile phones, laptops and metals. The platform operates in approximately 16 districts in Cairo . The founders came up for the idea in 2016 while following Zabbaleen wastepickers in Mokkatam Village and conducting a 6 month market research and studies in order to learn the details of monetary investment in garbage . A year after launching the platform Bekia has approximately 2600 customers and has conducted about 7000 replacements which total to a 60-tonne removal of waste. Bekia also plans to strike a deal with medical services such that customers can receive a discount coupon for doctor visits in exchange for waste. Up until 2018, the self-financed investment in Bekia amounted to approximately 500.000 EGP ($ 31.000 dollars).
Finally, Cairo has also seen the materialization of various recycling kiosks, in March 2017, two parliamentarians, one of which is Nadia Henry, launched the project Sell Your Garbage (SYG). The project encourages citizens to sort their waste at home and sell it at various kiosks against a small amount of money .
The first two kiosks opened in March 2017, in the middle/upper-class part of Cairo’s Heliopolis district and bought recyclables at prices that would change daily according to the prices in the informal and recycling crap market . SYG’s co-founder Henry expresses that each kiosk is a micro-franchise owned by a manager which is facilitated by the district and governorate to become licensed and approved . The kiosks take recyclables like paper, tin cans and plastics and nowadays they are owned and run by young people. Nermeen Boles is one of the people who run such a kiosk; “I spent all my savings to establish this kiosk, then rented a huge warehouse, along with 5 co-workers, who have now increased to 14,’ she says. “Currently, I am establishing a recycling company, after I had managed to make partnerships with residential compounds and large hotels to collect garbage from them regularly.” . Boles’ kiosk buys recyclables at the following prices per kilogram: paper and cardboard for two Egyptian pounds ($0.11), plastic for four ($0.22) and cans for 15 ($0.83).
But some citizens are of the opinion that the kiosks have taken their toll on the livelihoods of the Zabbaleen. Eissa Habeel, who has spent more than 50 years collecting and sorting garbage says: “The kiosks are killing us. The municipalities ally against us. Everyone is basically working against us Zabbeleen”.
But private garbage collectors(some of which previously informal Zabbaleen) have also rejected the kiosks set up by SYG, “Some garbage collectors are jobless now” expressed Shehata Meqadas the head of the garbage collectors syndicate only six days after SYG’s limited launch in Heliopolis . By sending some of his employees to observe the two kiosks that were first open in Heliopolis, he discovered that one kiosk sold recyclables to traders at a 11 EGP mark-up . As a result, the garbage collectors syndicate demanded an increase in the collection fees in the districts where kiosks have set-up. One of the workers is Mohammed Bakri, a 57-year-old man who had previously been infected with the hepatitis C virus but clearly expressed an unwillingness to change his profession: “In this profession, I have a daily income of 80 [Egyptian] pounds (about 4 US$), which I spend on my children, may God preserve it for us and keep away the garbage kiosks.”. In April 2017, Shehata Meqadas announced that he planned to send a memo to officials after meeting with 1500 garbage collectors. In the memo, a new plan for cleanliness in the city is demanded which actively includes the garbage collectors. So far, the kiosks were set up as a means to limit pollution and promote recycling without taking into account the individuals who have been earning a living from collecting and recycling waste .
Planned government-led and foreign-financed waste management projects
Regarding the higher levels of authority in Cairo, Egypt various public and private actors are planning to improve the waste management system through a variety of future projects and regulations. As an example, in February 2018 the Cairo Governor Atef Abdel Hamid announced that anyone littering on the streets of Cairo will face a fine ranging from 2000 – 5000 EGP ($124-$310 dollars). In the same breath, Egypt’s Minister of Environment, Khaled Fahmy, declared that garbage collection fees are going to be imposed across Egyptian governorates in order to improve the organization (not collection) of garbage. These fees will progressively apply to households, 85% of the population will pay 1-10 EGP ($0.06 - $0.60 dollars) while the remaining 15% will pay above 10 EGP on a monthly basis . This is to prevent that a family living in New Cairo villa pays the same as a family living in a Shubra studio.
In April 2018, Fahmy stated that Egypt is able to produce 55% of its energy from renewable energy sourced by 2050 through the use of waste to energy technologies. According to Waste Management and Energy Recovery Expert, Mohammad El Hassanein, the use of feed-in-tariffs, a gate-fee for waste-to-energy projects as well as a proper commercial and legal framework, will ensure the attraction of investments from private sector companies. On a national scale, the authorities seem hopeful in the ability to solve the national waste problem in conjunction with an increase of the national “renewable energy” share .
In May 2018, Fahmy also announced that the Kafr Al Sheikh governorate, 134 km above Cairo, has been supplied with equipment worth 300 million EGP ($18.6 million dollars) in order to establish a new waste management system .
At the beginning of 2019, Alaa Abdel Halim, the governor of another governorate north of Cairo, Qalyubia, announced that a new waste recycling plant will be established. The plant will collect and recycle the garbage in order to generate “renewable energy”. The plant will have the capacity to hold approximately 4000 tons of garbage per day and thereby claims to contribute to provide a healthier environment and prevent the open-air burning of waste .