Informal Garbage Collection – Egypt’s Zabaleen


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.

Nina Maritz


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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I saw a presentation by Nina Maritz in San Francisco in 2006, and I have continued to think about her approach periodically over the years.

Nina Maritz is a Namibian architect whose work reflects local building strategies and is built with local labor.

One project that showcases her work is the Habitat Research and Development Center in Windhoek, Namibia. Among many goals and activities listed for the center are “promote sustainable and environmentally appropriate housing” and “develop local skills in sustainable housing construction methods.” The completed project is site appropriate, made from local materials, and uses a number of passive cooling methods to keep the occupants comfortable. Each design decision addresses a number of design challenges (for example, by using poles from invasive species, she could abstain from using rare local hardwood).

What I found particularly striking about Nina Maritz’s work, and what I keep returning to, is the careful reuse of materials throughout the project.

(Photos on Flickr and in ArchitectureWeek)

Wherever possible, it seems, the architect worked with local workers and artisans to reuse materials such as corrugated metal, storage drums, cans, and tires, in both functional and decorative ways. While this approach is difficult in many places because of stringent building code and the expense of labor, it evokes an entirely different way of looking at the world, where every object holds potential not just for its intended use but also for future uses.