Zabaleen, an Arabic transliteration of informal garbage collectors, is sometimes used as a derogatory term. Their job is often looked down upon, even though they have long played a major role in lifting tonnes of waste from the streets of Cairo and other cities.
The unsung garbage collectors were not invited to the COP27, which focuses on climate change, its ensuing fire-breathing dangers, and the means to address them. They just keep plying their trade without paying attention to the event.
Zakher Al-Assuity, 23, is a garbage collector in Giza, who shares the ownership of a truck with others. His drill is to collect garbage in the neighbourhood of Al-Talbyia near the Pyramids, carry it in a makeshift sack on his back, and head to the truck to unload it.
Due to Greater Cairo’s topography and lack of urban planning, garbage trucks often increase traffic congestion, yet they are commonplace in the most populous Arab nation.
“I work to feed myself and be a better person and take care of my family. I do not know much about the weather [climate],” he says.
While Al-Assuity’s hands are full of scars and skin irritations, he considers himself lucky compared to his peers, with garbage collectors hardly receiving any form of support from the government. “Others have contracted viruses and other diseases. We have no protective social network if any of us is injured.”
Garbage collectors district
Um Morqus, a 43-year-old widow and mother of three, wakes up every day at 4am and starts roaming with her donkey cart, mainly collecting plastic, paper, and metal cans.
She finishes her work at 11pm before her children start delivering waste to different warehouses, some of which belong to other collectors.
Some collectors own equipment to compress plastic or soda cans, while others have farms where pigs eat organic waste.
Informal garbage collectors handle about 50% of waste, private sector companies handle about 30%, and the remaining 20% is collected directly by local governmental units in Cairo and Giza, mostly in upper class areas.”
Thousands of collectors in Manshiyet Nasr area on the Moqattam Mountain, Old Cairo, serve the capital where more than 30 million people reside.
More than 65% of Cairo’s garbage is collected by residents of this working-class neighbourhood, where 65,000 people dwell, according to official data.
The media dub this area Hay El-Zabaleen in Arabic, or the garbage collectors district. There are nearby bus stops that bear the same name.
Main recycling workforce
Established during the British colonialism of Egypt in 1946, when the main source of waste was soldiers’ camps, the community of garbage collectors today recycles more than 80% of Cairo’s waste.
Um Morqus collects more than 100kg of garbage every day, and younger male peers more than double this amount each. “Our work is essential to people,” says Beshara, a 56-year-old garbage collector.
“We make money, but we do the country a big service. Cairo is always dirty, but the streets are even dirtier when we are on holiday,” he adds, referring to the 7 of January Easter Christmas, as the majority of Hay El-Zabaleen residents are Coptic Christians.
Usually, families are wholly involved in the garbage business. For instance, Maria, Beshara’s 15-year-old daughter, focuses on waste sorting. She puts toothpaste tubes, shampoo bottles, papers and notebooks, food cans, and milk cartons into separate bags.
Smaller-scale garbage collector communities exist in other parts of Egypt, such as the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and Upper Egypt.
Head of the Garbage Collectors Syndicate Shehata El-Moqades says the majority of garbage collectors capitalise on the lack of infrastructure to collect and recycle waste.
“Informal garbage collectors handle about 50% of waste, private sector companies handle about 30%, and the remaining 20% is collected directly by local governmental units in Cairo and Giza, mostly in upper-class areas,” he says, adding that the government should collaborate more with the informal sector.
“The presence of companies to collect garbage in the governorates is more important than many projects that aim to preserve the environment,” El-Moqades adds.
No business with COP27
The work of informal garbage collectors is completely uninterrupted by the ongoing COP27.
“I only hear about the UN when they come around. They [reporters or representatives] take our pictures. I can usually spot them as they make a [disgusted] face from the smell,” Um Morqus tells The Africa Report.
Beshara has never heard of COP27. “I only heard about Sharm El-Sheikh from my cousin who works in a hotel there. I know there are a lot of pretty Russian ladies there,” he says.
While the likes of Um Morqus and Beshara were not invited to COP27, some representatives of wealthier recycling operations and startups have been taking part in the UN event.
Not totally cut off
But the informal garbage collectors are not totally cut off. An environment ministry representative tells The Africa Report that two years ago they launched a recycling initiative with major producers of plastic bottled beverages, through which companies cooperate with informal garbage collectors.
For the time being, informal garbage collection remains instrumental amid the insufficient infrastructure, the source says, adding that Egypt aims to build 56 waste recycling factories, of which 28 are already operational.
Remon’s family has become financially stable by being in the business of garbage collection, yet the 23-year-old, a resident of Hay El-Zabaleen, opted out of taking the same path as he leans towards more organised, yet less effective efforts.
Remon has joined initiatives to remove plastic and garbage from the Nile. “It is not their job like Hay El Zabaleen. It is an event that they will attend for a day. But at the end they will go home and hand their garbage to the informal collector, who does this for the money,” Remon tells The Africa Report.
“These initiatives, which are held by small startups and sponsored by foreign embassies, are good and positive, but they cannot handle removing tonnes of garbage.”