Managing Waste in Cairo's Landfills

After talking to many people about Cairo, I realized that there are two main images in the minds of those that have not seen it yet: Yes, it does have ...

Apr 26, 2014

After talking to many people about Cairo, I realized that there are two main images in the minds of those that have not seen it yet: Yes, it does have the pyramids, and it does look like a really old mixture of bland apartment buildings and slums larger than the entire city of Abu Dhabi. In other words, it looks like a fancy, habitable landfill. It is the place to go to if you want to pretend to have a profound connection to the Third World without really having to deal with the malaria. What most people do not know, however, is that the environmental effects of the waste of the 14 million people living in the larger metropolitan area have actually forced people to live in landfills. I am not speaking about Cairo anymore but about a smaller part of it known as Madinat el-Zabaleen, the city of garbage people.
As Egypt industrialized in the ‘50s and ‘60s, an urbanization trend began attracting people from rural areas around the country to Cairo. With slight improvements in healthcare and indoor plumbing, the population of the Greater Cairo area rose from around 2.4 million to the 14 million of today. The city soon became a hub of a wasteful population with an average of 21,237 people per square kilometer and no recycling plants. Unlike New York City, Cairo, for most people, is the city where dreams are buried alive under the rubbles of a shattered society and the 9 thousand metric tons of waste produced daily. This is where the Zabaleen come in.
In the 1940s a small group of landless peasants migrated to Cairo from Asyut and began buying organic waste from another group who had been in charge of garbage collection since 1910 in order to feed their livestock. It became a matter of buying organic feed and selling the livestock to produce minor profits and survive. Given the informal capacity, they did not set up permanent housing locations initially because of maintenance costs and the Egyptian government’s habit of constantly being an uninformed nuisance. Now, 70 years later, they have their own city under an eroding mountain with around 60,000 people.
Other than the fact that they collect around 3,000 tons of waste a day, what is more astounding is the efficiency at which they convert waste into usable material. Pigs eat organic waste and whatever is leftover from that used to generate electricity. Moreover, inorganic material is collected and sold as scrap metal to large factories. There is a bit of an assembly line structure divided by gender and age. A German friend of mine once called them “basic, primitive and pretty much useless.” Little did he know, Germany’s recycling plants managed to recycle only 70 percent of the waste collected compared to the 80 percent of the Zabaleen and the 33 percent average in the states. A group of subsistence farmers in the early part of the millennium now runs 2.1 million dollars’ worth of investments a year.
In typical Egyptian government fashion though, it was decided that handing out foreign contracts is the best approach. Contracts worth around $466 million over 15 years were handed out to French and Italian companies to treat about the same amounts of waste the Zabaleen are known to be able to handle. Whether it is political or not, this issue exposes the fact that a majority of the problems with waste management are due to a lack of education. Foreign companies might be able to treat different materials, but even then, only 25 percent of waste in Cairo is converted to recyclable material — and in this process uses a substantial amount of power sourced in non-renewable resources and releases enough gases to contribute to the black cloud which engulfs the inner city annually in the combustion process. The Zabaleen founded an economy built upon waste and created an independent community that continues, despite the Egyptian government and waste management industry indirectly endangering their livelihood with the ill-informed decision to contract foreign companies. Here is an example for green economies everywhere. Whilst heavily marginalized, not serviced by the government, suffering from high mortality rate and not highly advanced, the Zabaleen have accomplished what well-established, centralized structures have failed to deal with for fifty years: simple solid-waste management.
Ahmad Yacout is a contributing writer. Email him at
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