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Zabbaleen against corporate waste-management in El Cairo, Egypt


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” [24]. 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 [25], assistance in environmentally-friendly income-generating activities such as weaving and patchwork [26]. But both organizations also foster the development of Zabbaleen-led recycling companies, by 2019 approximately 120 Zabbeleen companies [32] 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 [24].

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 [27]. 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” [28]. 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 [28]. 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 [29]. 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 [30]. 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 [31]. 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 [32].

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 [33]. 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 [33].  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.” [32]. 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”[32].

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 [33]. 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 [33]. 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.”[34].  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 [35]. 

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 [36]. 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 [39].

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 [38].

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 [37].


Basic Data

Name of conflict:Zabbaleen against corporate waste-management in El Cairo, 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
Rare metals
Recycled Metals
Plastic, Paper/Cardboard

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).

The Zabbaleen collected up to 3,000 tones of garbage per day, 80% being recycled directly through their micro-enterprises, generating jobs and income for the community.

Municipal solid waste management is a serious problem in Egypt, and particularly in Cairo, with negative implications for both the environment, public health, and the national economy. Based on data from 2012, Egypt generates 20.5 million tons of municipal solid waste per year, 47% of which is generated by Cairo alone. [1] The efficiency of waste collection and transport is at 65%, which leads to daily accumulation of waste in streets and residential areas, as well as illegal dumping sites. However, in Cairo itself the efficiency is estimated at about 80%. Most of the landfills are open and exposed, and open burning is common as a method of dealing with waste. [1]

Only 40% of the waste in Cairo is collected by the CCBA. The Zabbaleen and the formal private sector collect another 40%, and 20% remain on the streets for random collection.

Therefore, a majority of waste collection and street sweeping services in Egypt is performed by the private sector (both formal, through contracted national and international companies, and informal, the traditional garbage collectors or Zabbaleen).

The informal private sector, or the Zabbaleen, are not contracted formally and their activities are unregistered and unregulated, with no acknowledgement from the government, and these services are carried out by families or small enterprises.

Some NGOs are also indirectly related to the waste management system, where their role is mainly to improve the livelihoods of the Zabbaleen by helping them build community groups to help raise awareness for waste management and environmental issues, as well as working on the capacity building of these community groups. They help establish community-based organizations (CBOs) to become the link between the Zabbaleen and the government.

Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:80,000-150,000
Start of the conflict:31/12/2003
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
Recyco Life - RecycoLife's recycling model conflicts with that of the Zabbaleen, because the start-up purchases waste while the Zabbaleen collect it for free.
Bekia from Egypt - Additional recycling initiative offering competition to the Zabbaleen
Sell Your Garbage (SYG) from Egypt - Some trash for cash kiosks have been met with resistance from both informal Zabbaleen recyclers and private garbage collectors.
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 Institutions International Finance Corporation (of World Bank) (IFC)
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)
Spirit of Youth (SOY)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Wastepickers, recyclers
Informal workers
Religious groups
The Zabbaleen are Coptic Christians
Landless peasants
Local scientists/professionals
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Recreational users
Trade unions
Industrial workers
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Objections to the EIA
Public campaigns
Shareholder/financial activism.
Street protest/marches
Hunger strikes and self immolation


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 StatusUnder construction
Conflict outcome / response:Application of existing regulations
Proposal and 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). By 2019, approximately 120 Zabbaleen companies have been established and are contracted by the government [24].
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:A significant amount of the Zabbaleen have received formal employment opportunities either in the recycling sector or other sectors (patch work and weaving), provided by both governmental organizations and NGO's. But the Zabbaleen who have not yet gotten the opportunity to do so, or prefer to remain informal because they earn a higher income are still facing threats by various trash-for-cash initiatives in Cairo.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

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 (04/2012)

[2] Towards Sustainable Management of Solid Waste in Egypt

[2] Towards Sustainable Management of Solid Waste in Egypt

[4] Cairo’s Contested Garbage: Sustainable Solid Waste Management and the Zabaleen’s Right to the City

[4] Cairo’s Contested Garbage: Sustainable Solid Waste Management and the Zabaleen’s Right to the City (2010)

[5] Cairo’s Contested Garbage: Sustainable Solid Waste Management and the Zabaleen’s Right to the City (2004)

[22] Zabbaleen: Trash Town (05/2016)

[23] Garbage Dreams: A documentary about the Zabbaleen (04/2009)

5] Cairo’s Contested Garbage: Sustainable Solid Waste Management and the Zabaleen’s Right to the City (2004)

[7] Waste not: Egypt's refuse collectors regain role at heart of Cairo society

[7] Waste not: Egypt's refuse collectors regain role at heart of Cairo society (03/2014)

[8] President’s controversial waste collection programme becomes institutionalised

[9] Despite a new regime, Cairo’s garbage collectors face the same hardships (02/2013)

[21] Cairo Municipal Solid Waste Management Project : Project Information Document (Concept Stage) (12/2014)

[24] The “Garbage People”: The Faces of Cairo’s Trash System (04/2019)

[25] Spirit of Youth: Empowering the Zabaleen through education and integration into the formal Waste Management sector of Cairo

[25] Spirit of Youth: Empowering the Zabaleen through education and integration into the formal Waste Management sector of Cairo (Date unknown)

[36] Egypt Set to Clean Streets by Imposing Garbage Fine (04/2018)

[39] Waste-to-Energy for a Sustainable Future in Egypt (06/2018)

President’s controversial waste collection programme becomes institutionalised

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[22] Zabbaleen: Trash Town (05/2016)

[23] Garbage Dreams: A documentary about the Zabbaleen (04/2009)

Other comments:Disclaimer: The introduction, in this case, is based on information until approximately early 2018. The references to this part of the case are those numbered by [1]-[21] at the end of the case. In the second part of the case some updates are given on the situation after 2017. This is when various contracts with multinationals regarding Egypt’s (and specifically Cairo’s) waste management ended.

Meta information

Contributor:Catherine Moughalian, Asfari Institute, AUB and Chandni Dwarkasing - EnvJustice ICTA-UAB
Last update22/12/2018
Conflict ID:2695



Photo credits: L. Osbourne

Photo credits: L. Osbourne

A Coptic Christian family selecting garbage to sell. Sandor Jaszberenyi / The National

Slum Settlement with piles of garbage

Photo credits: L. Osbourne

Photo credits: L. Osbourne

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

Photo credits: L. Osbourne

Photo credits: L. Osbourne

Slum Settlement with piles of garbage

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

A Coptic Christian family selecting garbage to sell. Sandor Jaszberenyi / The National

A Coptic Christian family selecting garbage to sell. Sandor Jaszberenyi / The National

Slum Settlement with piles of garbage

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