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In a March 2018 television interview, Egypt’s Minister of Environment Khaled Fahmy bemoaned the country’s current garbage collection system, stating that plans were underway to implement an entirely new approach.  Although he did not share the details of the new waste management plan, he said the government would start to organize garbage collection, and that new service fees would be imposed in order to incentivize and stabilize these efforts. Nowhere in his interview, however, did Fahmy mention a powerful community that has long been a driving force behind Cairo’s grassroots recycling efforts: the Zabaleen.   

According to a 2007 study by Habitat International, Egypt’s informal sector recovers 2,567,143 tons of waste annually and recycles over 80 percent of what it collects. This is in part thanks to the Zabaleen, over three million garbage collectors who live in over seven areas of Cairo, with the greatest concentration living in the Muqattam neighborhood.

Every day, the Zabaleen sift through 15,000 tons of garbage. The community, whose name is derived from the Arabic word for trash, collects up to 3,000 tons of garbage every day, recycling 85% of this through their own micro-enterprises.

In 1992, the community’s work received global recognition and acclaim at the Rio Earth Summit. In the report by Habitat International, the Zabaleen were referred to as “ one of the world’s most efficient resource recovery systems.”

Despite these accolades, the Zabaleen have been marginalized by the Egyptian state. In 2003, for example, then-president Hosni Mubarak privatized waste collection, contracting with corporations to encroach on the Zabaleen’s hard earned territory. Part of the privatization campaign involved efforts to relocate Zabaleen communities, with members fearing eviction from their homes. Then, in 2009, amidst a swine flu epidemic, members of the community, who are predominantly Christian, were forced to give up their pigs, a key source of income and nutrition for them. On top of all this, the Zabaleen do not receive a salary, pension, or insurance from the government, even though they consistently perform an important public service.

Almost a year ago, in April 2017, the Egyptian government introduced “Sell Your Garbage,” a new initiative for Cairo residents to sell their recyclables at kiosks. As may observed, however, the project threatened the Zabaleen’s work. In an interview with Egypt Today, Shehata El Mekades, head of the Garbage Collectors Syndicate, criticized the initiative, pointing out that it would cut off the Zabaleen’s income, and that they had not been consulted or alerted before the start of the project.

Although Egypt’s development depends on prioritizing environmental issues, this growing awakening must not come at the expense of the Zabaleen. In order to build a stronger, more sustainable recycling strategy, the Zabaleen must be fully involved in any recycling strategy for the country. Their livelihoods should be formalized and absorbed into the public sector – they know and understand the vast waste infrastructure in Cairo better than anyone, and can provide the government with counseling on sustainable, responsible recycling strategies.

As Egypt takes steps toward a cleaner future, the Zabaleen must be given a seat at the table throughout this important process.

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