Cairo’s ‘Zabaleen’ garbage collectors: Egypt’s diamond in the rough

Cairo’s ‘Zabaleen’ garbage collectors: Egypt’s diamond in the rough

Despite being sidelined for a decade, Cairo’s ‘Zabaleen’ garbage collectors have cultivated one of the world’s greenest waste-management systems – a rare entrepreneurial success story in Egypt. 

The Zabaleen, a term rooted in the Egyptian Arabic word zebāla or “garbage”, have served as Cairo‘s informal garbage collectors since the early 1940s. A tradition that began generations ago, the Zabbaleen have made their living by collecting trash door-to-door from Cairo’s residents at a bargain, sorting through 15,000 tons of daily garbage.

Estimated to be a community of about 70,000, they serve a city now close to 18 million people and have created one of the world’s greenest waste-management systems. They are believed to collect about two-thirds of Cairo’s waste and recycle an impressive 85% of what they receive.

The Zabbaleen use donkey-pulled carts and pick-up trucks to transport the garbage that they collect from the residents of Cairo, haul the garbage to their homes, sort the rubbish there, and proceed to sell the sorted refuse or create new goods from their recycled waste. Social services where this community resides are pitiful: disease is rampant, illiteracy high, and daily incomes for most stand below $1.

The Zabaleen survive largely off of cash tips, the sale of plastic bottles, paper, glass, and aluminum cans to factories, and their pigs, an essential component to their recycling and sorting system, as well as a cheap source of protein. While Egypt’s Muslim majority perceive pigs as dirty animals, the Zabaleen, a minority Coptic Christian community, do not. Ninety percent of Egypt’s 82 million population is Muslim, while roughly 9% is made up of Christians.

Ill-suited reforms hurt system

Despite the priceless service they provide, this community has faced persecution for decades.

In 2004, for example, their existence came under threat when this informal arrangement came to an abrupt halt. The municipal authorities grew exasperated with the Zabbaleen’s donkey carts, claiming that they were an eyesore and a traffic hazard.

In an attempt to “professionalize” Cairo’s waste management, Hosni Mubarak awarded annual contracts of $50 million to three multinational garbage disposal companies. With the arrival of the multinationals, residents were suddenly asked to deposit their waste in large bins left in the street.

Cairo locals did not respond well to this change, and the Zabaleen, who had to survive, continued to pick up most of the rubbish door-to-door for now a fraction of their previous wages. Residents, now paying multinationals, were reluctant to continue paying the Zabaleen as much as they had before.

To add insult to injury, the Western multinational “experts” were recycling a measly 25% of what they collected. In fact, a big portion of the waste was being dumped untreated into canals, rivers and even streets, polluting water, soil, and air, as well as negatively impacting the economy and tourism.

In 2009, at the height of the swine flu epidemic, Mubarak had roughly 300,000 pigs slaughtered, against the WHO’S advice. Destroying a crucial component of their socio-economic sustainability, this affected the Zabaleen community greatly, who were convinced it was an excuse for Mubarak to further chastise them.

Formalizing the Zabaleen system

A World Bank report predicts that Egypt loses an estimated 0.5 percent of its GDP due to its inefficient solid waste policies. During Mubarak’s ousting and Egypt’s ongoing political turmoil, supporters of the Zabaleen – like Spirit of Youth – began actively pushing for change, urging them to start formal companies.

Eventually, the Egyptian government was forced to accept that their grand multinational experiment had failed miserably. As a result, the government agreed to give the Zabaleen uniforms and vehicles and, for the first time, granted them an official role in the city’s waste processing.

An avid advocate of the Zabaleen, the new minister of the environment Leila Iskandar recently said: “Over the years the Zabaleen have created an efficient ecosystem that is both viable and profitable, with a recycling capacity of almost 100 percent. It provides work for women and young people who are the first to suffer from Egypt’s unemployment. We need to use this local organization.”

Entrepreneurial success story in Egypt

Under the combined management of the ministry of the environment and the Zabaleen union, 44 local waste disposal companies, with a labor force of 1,000 families, have been officially registered. Currently, the Zabaleen earn an estimated 41 euro cents per day, a wage that will hopefully triple under the new scheme. If successful, this guaranteed salary will help increase the living standards of this community.

Unfortunately, Egyptians continue to grapple with pungent problem as piles of garbage prevail in Cairo. In spite of a recovery in the first half of 2013, Egypt’s foreign reserves have steadily dwindled, and now barely cover three months of imports.

Earlier this year, the Egypt Economic Development Conference drew 1,700 investors and government leaders from 90 countries to Egypt’s resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh in a desperate attempt to boost its struggling economy. Despite securing over $38.2 billion in investment from foreign donors, in addition to $12.5 billion pledged by four Gulf countries, many have criticized the government’s failure to address the immediate socio-economic troubles that torment Egyptian society.

With piles of uncollected garbage and almost daily bombings, it is no surprise that investors remain wary.


About Author

Itziar Aguirre

Itziar currently works as a Research Consultant at JLL, a commercial real estate capital intermediary. She holds an MBA in Accounting and Finance from the University of St. Thomas and an MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics.