Cairo is a thriving city with a rich history and amazing sights. The longer I was there, the more I grew accustomed to the noise and air pollution and the more I appreciated the interesting layers of the city that I was just starting to peel away. By the title you may be thinking I mean Cairo is full of litter and trash. And to a westerner’s eye it very well may be. But I am talking about a certain neighborhood in Cairo referred to as Garbage City. And that is just what it is. All of the trash collected from Cairo’s twenty some-odd million people eventually winds up here in the Mokattam neighborhood to be sorted, recycled, and lived amongst. Garbage is piled two stories high, kids play on and in heaps of trash and, like an alpine city is coated in a light blanket of snow, Garbage City is covered with other peoples’ trash.
The Zabbaleen are a Coptic (Egyptian) Christian group that came to Egypt about fifty years ago from Southern Egypt and settled on the outskirts of the city. Gradually they began to collect garbage in carts and through their own initiative they started sorting the waste and trading it, eventually manufacturing the garbage in the 1980s with development agency assistance. Over the years, they’ve used their profits from trash to upgrade their neighborhoods, educate their children (nearly all are currently enrolled in school), create jobs for their women, and improve their equipment and methods.
More so than the rest of Cairo, this Garbage City is full of garbage-in the streets, in big canvas sacks, spilling onto the streets, with the smell of garbage that you can imagine. But it is not as bad as it sounds. The gargantuan piles have actually been sorted into recycling groups of plastic, glass, and other materials to be reused. The residents of Mokattam count their blessings – unlike others, they have a steady source of income. The Zabbaleen go around and collect trash from the bustling metropolis by morning and sort through it in the evening to see if they can find anything salvageable. Specifically, they try to find recyclables, for which they earn a few more pounds for. It seems strange to some, but our tour guide tells us that these people are better off than some other poor members of society. In fact, greater Cairo’s approximately 60,000 Zabbaleen, who gather one third of the city’s 10,000 tons of daily garbage, have what is considered one of the world’s most innovative and efficient models of solid waste disposal. They collect the garbage, sort it, and then recycle as much as 80 percent of it into raw materials and manufactured goods – plastics, rugs, pots, paper, and glass – which are then traded with thousands of businesses nationwide. Driving through the bustling neighborhood, we were greeted with the smiles and waves of happy children. In fact one ten-year old girl with chocolate eyes and a wishful smile literally ran with our bus through the cluttered streets most of the time we were there. Just when we thought we’d lost her, she’d catch up to us and be waving at our side. It was almost like a spirit of life was looking into our eyes and it was quite moving.