What the Zabaleen of Cairo Egypt Can Teach Us About Recycling and Garbage

by Joanne Steele on April 29, 2010


Several nights ago I was fortunate enough to catch the independent film “Garbage Dreams” on my local public television station.Garbage Dreams

I understand that some US  television stations are going to show it this Saturday on the program, Independent Lens.

What does garbage and recycling have to do with rural? Lots.

Think about where urban garbage ends up. Somewhere where there’s space, ie, somewhere rural, so it’s something we need to think about.

In Cairo, Egypt, for generations the Coptic Christians have been the garbage collectors and recyclers. They pick up garbage in little pickups, big trucks, on donkey-back, and on their own backs.

The garbage is transported to their own district on the outskirts of Cairo, where a community of 60,000 people live, work, play and worship on top of and around it.

When I was in Cairo a year and a half ago visiting my sister, the most moving trip I took was to Garbage City. Check out my travel post on my experience.

What I saw and was again reminded of in this film was an industry and whole culture built around recycling. 80% of all of Cairo’s garbage that is picked up by the Zabaleen is recycled!

In the film, several of the young men were taken to Europe to view a “modern” recycling operation with fancy heavy equipment and conveyer belts. One boy went up to a conveyer and picked up a small piece of plastic that was heading for the landfill. He was dismayed that this small scrap was not being recycled, saying, “Garbage, this little piece of plastic is a gift to us from God!”

I brought back a beautiful tote bag made by Zabaleen women of recycled fiber collected in Garbage City. Nothing that can be recycled goes to waste.

What can all of us learn from the Zabaleen?

1. Garbage is an opportunity. There is value in recycled materials. There is value in reconstituted materials. There is tourism opportunity in showing and educating people about properly handling garbage.

2. 28% or even 50% recycling isn’t enough – even 80% isn’t enough, but it’s getting there.

3. All the answers can’t be found through technology – some require a change of thinking.

4. Combining technology with a Zabaleen mindset could help us deal with the mountains of garbage that are spreading into rural areas along the urban fringes worldwide.

Do we want to build a rural economy around garbage. OF COURSE NOT! But if it’s there, is there a better way of dealing with it than we’re doing now? YES.

The Zabaleen can teach us how.

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