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Waste not want not.

Long before the idea was fashionable in the West, Cairo had been recycling over half its household waste. But it is not the city authority that has shown such foresight, but a community of Copts, the so-called Zabbaleen.

The first glow of the morning sun has begun to appear beyond the tile minarets and skyscrapers of the Cairo skyline. Soon, the wailing of the muezzins will commence, calling the faithful to the first prayer of the day. For one group of Cairenes, though, the day is already under way. In seven crowded settlements around the outskirts of this city of 16 million, kitchen stoves have been lit and the inhabitants are getting dressed. Few of them pay any heed to the muezzins, for most of them are Copts, Egypt's Christian minority.

By five o'clock, a motley assortment of vehicles is leaving each site, heading out into the slumbering city. Cairo's garbage collectors, the Zabbaleen, are on their way to work.

This is not a refuse service run by the metropolitan authority and paid for by taxpayers. The Zabbaleen are entirely independent of the city authority-the Cairo Governorate. Their wages come from recycling the piles of waste they collect.

In this sprawling mega-city, which grows by over 2,000 people a day, the Zabbaleen perform an essential role. Cairo's inhabitants daily produce over 6,000 tonnes of solid waste and they deal with half of that. "If we stopped collecting, Cairo would be buried in garbage," boasts one Zabbal. Over 80% of the rubbish they collect is actually recycled. By comparison, London, with half the population of Cairo, produces over 6,600 tonnes of household waste a day and recycles just 3% of that.

"The system is not perfect,' admits Mounir Bushra, an engineer with Environmental Quality International (EQI), a consultancy that has assisted the Zabbaleen since 1980. "But it has lots of advantages over the Western approach to waste management."

Bushra is himself a Copt and a board member of the Association for the Care of Garbage Collectors (known as AI Gameya), the main organisation representing the Zabbaleen, and has become their unofficial spokesman. Cairo's method of dealing with its waste, unique among the world's major cities, dates back almost 100 years, long before recycling was even thought of in the West.

A group of migrants from the Western Desert, known as the Wahis who settled in Cairo at the turn of the century found they could make a good living charging for collecting rubbish and then selling the food waste as fuel for homes and Turkish bath-houses. But with Cairo's rapid expansion from the 1940s onwards, the rubbish mountains grew too big for the Wahis. A new group of migrants, the Zarrab-Coptic pig-breeders from the Assiut region of Upper Egypt-came to the rescue.

Like the Wahis, they had been forced to leave their homes by economic hardship. But with limited skills, the Zarrabs had few options open to them in Cairo other than to continue breeding pigs. Food waste made ideal fodder for their swine and they began to take over the job of rubbish collection. Gradually, this became their main activity and their ancestry was forgotten. They became known as the garbage collectors, the Zabbaleen.

The arrival of the Zarrabs did the Wahis an immense favour, allowing them to establish what was virtually a protection racket. No longer did they have to organise garbage collections, yet they continued to levy fees on building owners and householders.

In the fast-growing city that Cairo is today, it is impossible to maintain this sort of stranglehold and the Wahi / Zabbaleen relationship has become more symbiotic. As soon as a new block of fiats starts to go up, Wahis try to fix up a deal with the building owners. They then parcel out the collecting business to Zabbaleen they know.

Despite their importance to the city, the Zabbaleen have long been shunned by other Cairenes. Officialdom has often seemed to be against them, too. Four times in the last 50 years, the Cairo Governorate has evicted them from their homes. The last time was in the 1970s, but even today only the largest settlement, Moqattam, in northeast Cairo, has security of tenure.

However, the Governorate has had to tread more carefully in the last few years, because the Zabbaleen have become something of a pet-cause for the world's environmentalists. Their recycling activities and efforts to improve living conditions in their settlements won widespread praise at the 1994 UN Population conference, held in Cairo. Delegates trooped off to their settlements by the busload to see the Zabbaleen for themselves. Then in May, the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), a Zabbaleen support group, was given a UN Global 500 award for environmental achievement.

The Zabbaleen observe strict gender divisions in their work: men do the collecting, women and girls do the sorting. Prickly about Cairo's image, the Governor has banned the Zabbaleen from using donkey carts in the city. They would certainly prefer to use pick-up trucks or lorries, but many collectors simply cannot afford one.

A compromise has emerged, whereby the Zabbaleen do not use donkey carts in the richer and central parts of the city. AI Gameya has helped many Zabbaleen buy their own pick-ups, through a system of small loans, supported by EQI and the US Ford Foundation. But even in the most developed settlement, Moqattam, less than half the collectors have a pick-up. With the average wage of a garbage collector currently between E[pounds] 200 and E[pounds]400 per month-[pounds]40 to [pounds]75 sterling- many have shied away from taking up a loan, for fear of getting into debt. "It's very frustrating,'" says Mounir Nawar, a French-speaking engineer who advises AI Gameya. "If the Zabbaleen had more pick-ups, they could do the collecting much faster and bring in more rubbish. And it wouldn't just benefit the Zabbaleen, but the whole of Cairo, too."

Upon their return to their settlements, the Zabbaleen tip out the day's collection in their family compounds for sorting. Ankle deep in food scrapings, paper, plastic bottles, rags and every other form of filth imaginable, the women and children pick through it all. Flies carpet everything. One might expect the women doing the sorting to be covered in dirt themselves. Quite the opposite, most are dressed immaculately, in bright, colourful clothes, even as they rummage through piles of rotting garbage. Many wear jewellery and brilliant red varnish on their finger and toe nails. It is their way of insulating themselves from the filth, one woman explained.

Almost half the 3,000 tonnes of garbage that the Zabbaleen collect each day ends up in Moqattam. Although its 18,000 inhabitants would not appreciate the description, this is rubbish city. It is the smell you notice first. Even before you reach the settlement, it is creeping into your nostrils. Thick, hot and putrid, it is the stench of rotting food and pig manure, cooked by the Cairo sun.

Although the Zabbaleen have found a use for just about everything Cairenes throw away, plastic has proved to be the most prodigious money spinner. Several thousand people are employed in recycling it in Moqattam, some working in family concerns, others in small factories.

Compost also pulls in serious money. A large composting plant was set up in the middle of the settlement in 1986 and is now run by APE. Fed with pig manure and other organic waste, it churns out over 25,000 tonnes of highgrade compost a year, much of which has been sold for reclamation work in the Western Desert, producing an annual income of E[pounds]500,000 (about [pounds]96,000).

APE has used the compost cash to fund other projects, including a women's education centre, a primary school for 160 children and a new health clinic.

Living conditions in Moqattam have undoubtedly improved dramatically over the last decade, as a result of an upgrading scheme instituted in the 1980s. Yet it is still not a place anyone would choose to live. Rubbish litters the narrow, potholed streets. Half-naked children play barefoot in the streets, their bodies often streaked in grime. Skin diseases are still common. Moreover, there are still question marks over the safety of the site itself. In December 1993, an avalanche of rocks fell on the settlement below, killing 41 people, half of them children. "It could happen again", admits Mounir Bushra. However, he dismisses any suggestion that the Moqattam Zabbaleen should find a new site. "Here they have security of tenure and this is essential if they are to invest in the community. Moreover, donor agencies will only fund further development work if the Cairo Governorate guarantees this."

The impact of having no land rights is clear in Tora, Cairo's poorest Zabbaleen community. Forced to move there in 1970, after being evicted from their previous homes, they still live in tin shacks with no utilities. But the Cairo Governorate, which owns the land, will neither sell nor give them tenure. With no security, the 6,000 inhabitants see little point in building any permanent structures. Worse, a plan to develop a new site for the Zabbaleen nearby, which the European Union agreed to fund as far back as 1990, has been caught up in a fight for control between different government agencies.

For Isaac Na'im, their lack of stability is indicative of the general public's attitude towards them. "We are treated like criminals sometimes" he says indignantly. 'But we are protecting Cairo's environment. We should not even be called garbage collectors, we are cleaners. We have been keeping the city clean for almost a hundred years and we will still be keeping it clean in another hundred."
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Title Annotation:recycling in Cairo, Egypt
Author:Norton, Andre
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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