The ‘zabalín’, the unsung champions of recycling in Cairo


Hossam Usama and Pablo Perez |

Cairo (EFE).- The ‘zabalín’ cross Cairo every morning in small vehicles or in carts pulled by donkeys or horses to remove more than half of the city’s household waste and recycle it with a rate of very high efficiency. But the image of Egypt, which will host COP27 next November, regarding this community is quite different.

Thousands of families of ‘zabalin’ (meaning garbage collectors) live off Cairo’s rubbish and when authorities tried to replace them or interfere with their way of life, the megacity of nearly 20 million people was flooded with ‘refuse.

Despite this, belonging to the marginalized Coptic Christian minority and literally living surrounded by garbage, they feel the contempt of their fellow citizens.

A zabalin unloads a garbage truck in Mokattam district, known as Garbage City, Cairo. EFE / Pablo Perez

According to UNESCO, the “zabalín” recycle between 80 and 85% of the waste they collect, a percentage that many developed countries would like for themselves.

As Egypt prepares to host the COP27 climate summit, the “zabalín” could be used to show their recycling efficiency, but the image given by this community does not coincide with the modernity that the government wants project.

a family business

“Here there are around 70,000 pickers and we treat 5,000 of the 20,000 tons of waste that Cairo generates every day,” Romani Badir told Efe at the headquarters of the community association ‘zabalín’ in the Mokattam district. , known as the “trash of the city” and where some 70,000 people are engaged in the collection, sorting and recycling of waste.

Each Mokattam ‘zabalin’ family has a specific collection route and usually the father picks it up and brings it home. There, on the ground floor, other members of the family, usually the wife and older children, will rummage through the garbage to separate cardboard, glass, different types of plastic, cans…

zabaline recycling cairo
A worker at the Association of Garbage Collectors for Community Development’s polypropylene plastic recycling plant in the Mokattam district. EFE / Pablo Perez

Organic waste is used as food for the domestic animals they raise, such as pigs, goats, cows or chickens.
The whole neighborhood is full of garbage. He piles up in bags of all sizes on the street and overflows the gates where families file him, without gloves, masks or any protection.

Despite the obvious unsanitary conditions, Badir assures us that “the ground floor is the work area, where we separate the garbage cans, but the upper floors of the houses are very clean”.

unrecognized work

Badir is proud of his work and its environmental value, but feels that the rest of society discriminates against them, such as when he recently heard a minister say in a television interview that he would not appoint a “zabaline” to a position of responsibility.

The ‘zabalín’ community of Mokattam has come a long way since settling in this quarry area in the 1970s in precarious housing and now they have houses, schools and basic services.

zabalin cairo
A resident of Mokattam weaves a carpet from recycled fabrics at the Environmental Protection Association in Cairo. EFE / Pablo Perez

Many of them have obtained university degrees, some with the help of organizations such as the Environmental Protection Association, an NGO that focuses on helping women in the community to increase their incomes through the processing of handicraft waste. .

The organization teaches them to make clothes and rugs with scraps from clothing factories, necklaces with coffee capsules, ornaments with pieces of glass, Christmas cards with recycled paper or belts with soda can loops.

But they also provide Mokattam residents with literacy classes, college scholarships, a kids’ club, and a medical center to treat many of the neighborhood’s ailments.

“There are many endemic health problems here, such as anemia”, explains the president of the NGO, Siyada Greis, who also points to the high incidences of hepatitis B and C, diabetes or glaucoma.

high resilience

However, he warns, “the ‘zabalín’ have shown ‘great resilience and many coping mechanisms’, not only in the face of disease and discrimination, but even in the face of some attacks from the authorities.

During the 20019-2010 swine flu pandemic, the government ordered the slaughter of all its pigs, those responsible for eliminating organic waste by eating them, therefore its partial elimination (a part managed to be hidden), caused a health problem in Cairo.

Later, an attempt was made to replace the ‘zabalín’ with private companies, but it was not so easy to change a system that had worked for years and the city was once again filled with garbage, until what the government is doing about it.

Despite the informality and the lack of recognition, they are aware that they are essential to the city.
“We pick up 11,000 tons of trash every day and we don’t even take one day off a year. If we only took three days, let’s see how they handle 33,000 tons of trash,” Badi says.

Web editor: Nuria Santesteban


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