08 May 2011

Cairo's garbage people

In my last thesis prep review, Nassar had suggested I look at precedents for locally-organized sorting methods.  He mentioned the Zabbaleen (= Garbage people, in Egyptian Arabic), a community that acts as Cairo's informal garbage collectors, since I'm looking at developing methods and techniques for sorting and processing rubble.

One intriguing fact about this community of about 70,000 Coptic Christians is that their municipal solid waste services are seen as one of the most efficient in the world in terms of recycling.  They basically go door to door to collect trash, haul it back to their homes on the backs of donkeys (and now in some small garbage trucks), sort it and sell every last bit of recyclable material to middlemen.  The organic waste is then eaten by pigs - I guess one method of "composting."  Their operations are done by hand.  Their entrepreneurial ways of living have been threatened by the government's hiring in 2003 of contracted garbage collection agencies to take care of the city's waste.

In my brief search, I came across 2 documentaries that bring the Zabbaleen to international attention :

Garbage Dreams

Marina of the Zabbaleen

There is a power in the medium of the documentary to bring to light critical issues and people that I (and others), otherwise, would have no idea about.  I have to do some further research to see how their methods might be helpful to inform my own work, but learning about these informal communities reminds me that institutions aren't always what bring about change or keep things running.

P.S. The Wiki page about this group of people is one of the most extensively footnoted of online articles I've seen.  Impressive!

Another note : I didn't mention this issue above, but in 2009 because of H1N1, the Egyptian government did a widespread collection of pigs - including those belonging to the Zabbaleen.  Since the pigs are the organic waste munchers...  the issue the government didn't think they would have to deal with was huge piles of smelly mess in their streets.  The NYTimes actually covered this garbage crisis, which sounds almost humorous until you remember this concerns a people's livelihood and a city's own ability to be clean and sanitary.