Informal Garbage Collection – Egypt’s Zabaleen

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This post is part of our series exploring the ways people and communities reuse, recycle and dispose of waste around the world.

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For decades the Zabaleen*, the regional garbage collectors, have gathered and processed the recyclables, managing to earn a living in the process. The Zabaleen are generally Coptic Christians, a minority in Muslim Egypt. One way in which they have dealt with organic waste is to feed it to their pigs. Once the pigs were fattened, the Christian Zabaleen could eat the pigs or sell the meat.

In 2009 the Egyptian government killed all the pigs in a misguided effort to forestall a swine flu epidemic.

The population of Cairo is about 18 million people. The government has tried to institute formal garbage collection in various ways since the 1980s, with the most recent effort involving multinational companies, but with limited success. And since the government killed a major part of their livelihood, the Zabaleen  stopped handling the organic waste.

Garbage began piling up in Cairo (images here).

In November 2009, the Egyptian government unsuccessfully tried to end its contracts with the Italian, Spanish, and French companies charged with garbage collection, saying the companies failed to do their jobs.

The international companies have now hired some of the Zabaleen as Cairo struggles to find a lasting solutions.

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There is a Sundance Channel documentary about Cairo’s garbage collection history called “Cairo: Garbage” that looks interesting.

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*Also seen spelled Zabbaleen.