Local press and environmentalists in Egypt claim that the unofficial garbage workers of Cairo – the Zabaleen – are being sidestepped by President Mohamed Morsi’s Clean Homeland campaign, which resolves to solve the country’s overwhelming garbage issue within 100 days.
This was a dangerous promise to make given that so many of the systems required for effective waste management have long since eroded in the capital (if they ever existed.) Meanwhile, the Zabaleen have been keeping Cairo from being completely buried by waste – all of their own accord – by collecting, recycling and sorting what they can. But the importance of the service they provide has long been overlooked by government.
No rest for the recyclers
Spirit of Youth is a non-government organization initially founded in 2004 to represent the Zabaleen – a group of minority Coptic Christians who subsist on the meager proceeds of recycling Cairo’s waste. They received virtually no support from the last regime and now there is a chance they face a similar fate with the new government.
The NGO’s director Ezzat Naiem told Egypt Independent that the Clean Homeland campaign is nothing more than political propaganda and that the campaign managers have declined to discuss the city’s waste management issues with them despite their longstanding experience.
According to the paper, Spirit of Youth has established no fewer than 38 legitimate companies among the Zabaleen trash sorters, who mostly populate the Mokkatam village known as Garbage City.
Roughly 150,000 Zabaleen workers sort about 8,000 tons of waste per day, which amounts to roughly 60% of the capital’s daily waste output. Naiem recommends formalizing this system so that the Zabaleen can actually receive financial rewards for their services.
$1 a month per family is all it takes
Under Naiem’s recommended approach, each family living in buildings throughout Cairo could be required to pay LE5 a month (under $1) to have their garbage collected and sorted.
“With that sort of money, the Zabaleen could personally separate the garbage, recycle what they can, and then send the organic waste to compost sites and the remaining waste to the appropriate facilities — which they do already, but lack finances and motivation to tackle the problem properly,” Naiem told Egypt Independent.
But campaign supervisor Ali Shelby said in a statement that the Clean Homeland campaign has other plans that take inspiration from Turkey’s approach to waste management (links to PDF). He added, however, that the new waste management strategy will involve both multinational companies and the Zabaleen.
In short, it’s not yet clear where the Zabaleen stand under President Morsi, who vowed when he was first elected that no minority religious groups would be marginalized during his presidency. Let’s hope he makes good on his promise. Because if the Zabaleen can’t sort trash, what will they do instead?
Image credit: Trash in Egypt, Shutterstock