Garbage collectors, the hidden heroes of recycling in Cairo

By Hossam Usama and Pablo Perez

Cairo, Oct 6 (EFE).- Every morning, trash collectors sweep the streets of Cairo in their small vehicles or donkey-pulling carts to remove the Egyptian capital’s waste to get recycled.

Thousands of Zabbaleen, an Egyptian Arabic term for garbage men, live off recycling Cairo’s waste and when authorities tried to replace them or interfere with their lifestyle, the city of nearly 20 million inhabitants had become inundated with trash.

The Zabbaleen recycle up to 85% of the garbage they collect, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“Here, there are around 70,000 collectors and we process 5,000 of the 20,000 tons of garbage that Cairo generates every day,” Romani Badir tells Efe at the headquarters of the Zabbaleen community in the Manshiyat Nasser neighborhood.

Some 70,000 people work in collecting, classifying and recycling waste in the Garbage City suburb of Cairo.

Each family takes care of a specific route. Usually, the father collects the trash and transports it to his house, where other family members start the classification process.

The whole neighborhood is swamped with garbage. It is piled up in bags of all sizes on the street for families to classify it, without gloves, masks, or any type of protection.

Despite the unsanitary condition, Badir says that “the ground floor is a work area, where we separate the garbage, but the upper floors of the houses are very clean.”

Badir is proud of his work and its environmental value but feels his community is discriminated against by the rest of society. Recently, Badir heard a minister say in a televised speech that he would not appoint waste collectors to official posts

The Zabbaleen community has evolved significantly since it settled in precarious housing in Garbage City in the 1970s. Today, they have houses, schools and basic services.

Many of them have university degrees, some with the help of organizations such as the Environmental Protection Association, an NGO that focuses on helping women in the community by increasing their income by transforming waste into handicrafts products.

The organization teaches them how to make necklaces with coffee capsules, ornaments with pieces of glass, Christmas cards with recycled paper and belts from soda cans.

They also offer Manshiyat Nasser residents, mostly Coptic Christians, literacy classes, college scholarships, a children’s club and a medical center to treat them.

“There are many endemic health problems here, such as anemia,” says NGO president Siyada Greis, who also highlights that there are many cases of hepatitis B and C, diabetes and glaucoma.

Greis explains that the Zabbaleen have shown “a lot of resilience and many survival mechanisms,” not only in the face of disease and discrimination but even in the face of several hits by the authorities.

During the 2019-2010 swine flu pandemic, the government ordered the slaughter of all its pigs.

Later, authorities attempted to replace the Zabbaleen with private companies, but it was not so easy to change a system that had been operating for years. It left the city filled with waste until the government solved the issue.

“We collect 11,000 tons of garbage every day and we don’t take a single day of vacation a year. If we took only three days, let’s see how they manage 33,000 tons of garbage,” says Badir. EFE


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