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Multinational takeover threatens the livelihood of the Zabbaleen, Egypt

The Zabbaleen are the traditional waste collectors of Cairo and have created one of the world’s most efficient and sustainable resource recovery and waste-recycling systems.


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.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Multinational takeover threatens the livelihood of the Zabbaleen, Egypt
State or province:Cairo Governorate
Location of conflict:Cairo
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Urban development conflicts
Waste privatisation conflicts / waste-picker access to waste
Specific commodities:Domestic municipal waste
Project Details and Actors
Project details

“Garbage City” is located on the poverty belt of Cairo in the Manshiet Nasser settlement located on the Muqattam mountain’s lower plateau, on the Eastern fringes of Cairo. The community is characterized by a high incidence of epidemics, illiteracy, poor environmental conditions, and low incomes ($60-75 per month).

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Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:80,000-150,000
Company names or state enterprises:Egyptian Company for Garbage Collection (ECGC) from Egypt
URBASER from Spain - Spanish Waste management company
FCC from Spain - Private Spanish waste management company
AMA S.p.A. (ama) from Italy - Italian Waste management company
Emaar from United Arab Emirates - Dubai-based Emaar property development company that proposes developing urban luxury residential gated communities in the neighbourood
Relevant government actors:Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs (MSEA)
Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA)
The Cairo Cleansing and Beautification Authority (CCBA)
Cairo Governorate
Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities (MHUUC)
General Organisation for Physical Planning (GOPP)
Ministry of Local Development (MoLD)
Ministry of Finance (MoF)
International and Finance InstitutionsThe World Bank from United Kingdom
German Development Bank KfW (KfW) from Germany
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE)
Community and Institutional Development (CID)
Environment Quality Internation (EQI)
Environmental Protection Company (EPC)
Conflict and Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageUnknown
Groups mobilizing:Informal workers
Local ejos
Wastepickers, recyclers
Religious groups
The Zabbaleen are Coptic Christians
Forms of mobilization:Involvement of national and international NGOs
Street protest/marches
Impacts of the project
Environmental ImpactsPotential: Global warming, Soil contamination, Waste overflow
Health ImpactsPotential: Infectious diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Loss of livelihood, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Application of existing regulations
Development of alternatives:A member of CID consulting has proposed integrating the Zabbaleen into the international companies' contracts. He suggests that transfer stations can be established where non-organic MSW can be sorted and sent to existing traders. The Zabbaleen can continue collecting the rate on a door-to-door basis and continue recycling, and only pass the residual waste to the companies. Moreover, they can receive inorganic waste from these companies as input for the recycling business and get contracted for specific types of waste directly from the generators of waste, such as paper from print shops, etc... He also recommends the establishment of small community-based composting facilities. In addition, their nationwide trading network can be connected to the formal sector of solid waste management, thus making the system mutually beneficial for both sides.
Ezzat Naem Gendy, Chairman of the Garbage Collector Syndicate, proposes that an ideal system would be to divide Cairo into different areas, supervised by local collection companies. This would help localize efforts within each area for waste management, and circumventing the neglect shown by major corporations who tend to underperform.
According to Dr. Leila Iskandar, chairperson of CID consulting, working at full capacity, the Zabbaleen will be able to cover the waste of two thirds of Cairo. They have now formed around 32 companies to make it possible for the government to give them contracts instead of larger corporations (data from 2012)
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The Zabbaleen are still not formally contracted, although there are rumours that this might change when the contracts of companies end at the end of 2017
Sources and Materials
Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Egypt does not have an integrated MSWM law. Rather, the legal framework is scattered in many bylaws and regulation: The most significant pieces of legislation are:

- Law # 38/ 1967

- Law # 31/ 1976

- Law # 4/ 1994

- Law # 10/ 2005

- The Prime Minister Decree #1741/ 2005

- Law # 9/ 2009

The Presidential Decree # 86/ 2010

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Municipal Solid Waste Management in Egypt- Focus on Cairo
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Towards Sustainable Management of Solid Waste in Egypt
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Formalizing the Informal? The Transformation of Cairo's Refuse Collection System
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Cairo’s Contested Garbage: Sustainable Solid Waste Management and the Zabaleen’s Right to the City
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The impact of privatization of solid waste management on the Zabaleen garbage collectors of Cairo
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Recycling the Rejects of the Rejects; Protection of the Environment and Poverty Alleviation by Job Creation to Youth
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Cairo’s Zabaleen garbage recyclers: Multi-nationals’ takeover and state relocation plans
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Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Waste not: Egypt's refuse collectors regain role at heart of Cairo society
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Garbage Collectors Syndicate criticises trash kiosks
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[2] President’s controversial waste collection programme becomes institutionalised
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Egypt Justice Minister resigns over Classist Comments on Garbage Collectors
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Despite a new regime, Cairo’s garbage collectors face the same hardships
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Morsy’s ‘Clean Homeland’ plan met with skepticism
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Cairo's rich asked to sort waste at home
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In pictures: meet Egypt’s garbage people, the Zabbaleen
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Cairo’s Garbage City
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Garbage Woes in Cairo
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Egypt’s trash trouble: Mountains of garbage piling up
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“Clean Homeland” campaign leaves out Cairo’s rubbish entrepreneurs
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The Cave Church of the Zabbaleen in Cairo
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Rubbish is a source of wealth and we are not capitalising on it
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Egypt's persecuted Zabaleen garbage collectors
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Turning waste into wealth with Cairo's garbage people
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Cairo Municipal Solid Waste Management Project : Project Information Document (Concept Stage)
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Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Zabbaleen: Trash Town
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Garbage Dreams: A documentary about the Zabbaleen
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Other documents

A family at work in the Mokattam area of the Egyptian capital Cairo, where zabaleen collect, separate, sell or reuse rubbish. Photograph: Bernat Armangue/AP
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A Coptic Christian family selecting garbage to sell. Sandor Jaszberenyi / The National
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Slum Settlement with piles of garbage
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Photo credits: L. Osbourne
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Photo credits: L. Osbourne
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Meta information
Contributor:Catherine Moughalian, Asfari Institute, AUB
Last update22/12/2018
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